Chapter 9: Balls and Bow Ties

In which the reader discovers Mark and his penchant for plots!

 

Stephanie was exhausted after visiting with Gilly all day, which is what it had turned into—an all day affair. When she arrived at her apartment building, she caught Mark slouching down the outer stairs. Did they have a date? It certainly appeared they did, as he was wearing his favorite hat, a rare thrift store find of a 1980s Cardinals ballcap, and his JOI-issued, multi-pocketed journalist jacket.

She parked in a hurry and ran after him, shouting his name.

He turned around and grinned at her. “And there she is, the reporter at large!”

She stood on toe and gave him a kiss. “I’ve had such a day. You won’t believe.”

“Can I hear about it later? The game’s about to start. I just thought you might want to go Casey’s with me for a drink and dinner.”

“I don’t know, Mark. I’m trying to save money right now, and I’m on a diet, too. Do you think I have a fat ass?”

He squinted his eyes and rocked back on his heels. “Yes. No. Whatever it is, it’s fine, and you can get a salad and skip the beer. I’ll pay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, we just got paid today, and I want to go to Casey’s and spend time with you. A win, win, right?”

“Oh, wow, I forgot it was payday.”

“Yeah, if you’d gone to the office, you would have seen the hate stares.”

“Why?”

“The League fees went up, which means everybody had smaller paychecks. Oh, and Mr. Mast made one of us stop the centipede and add an exposé on Tomi Corp. So I did it. It’s just a stupid machine, not a monster.”

The centipede was their printing press. It had been built especially for their paper and its grassroots status. However, the engineer who had created it was subsequently diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder due to a chronic psychosis whereby he saw robotic arms everywhere. Because of the visions he couldn’t eradicate from his mind, the printing press had been built with a hundred arms. It appeared to be the monster mechanical version of a centipede.

The entire staff of the Albuquerque Daily was afraid of it, except Mark. Stephanie was terrified of it. It had, in fact, shown up in several of her nightmares. If she’d been at the office, she would have happily let Mark do the dirty deed. Her own hateful stares would have been inspired only by the fact that she had been given the Tomi Corp assignment. Mr. Mast should not have given her assignment to another reporter.

“Why did somebody else write my story?”

“I don’t think anybody else wrote it. Mr. Mast cobbled it together from other newspaper headlines because he didn’t want his paper to look out-of-date.”

“My story was going to be in depth, a true New Mexico story. It was supposed to come out the same week as the retro bots. He assigned it to me because I’m good at what I do.”

“He’s never been known for his savvy intelligence, Steph. I wouldn’t worry about it…until the paper suffers from his idiocy, our wages stagnate again, while the League fees continue to rise.”

Stephanie groaned. “And you want to go out to eat? I have perfectly good Toaster Tacos in my freezer.”

“Yes. I’m not sacrificing my life to the League or Mr. Mast. When was the last time we went out?”

“You mean, really went out, or went out to Casey’s? I don’t think we’ve ever gone to a real restaurant together.”

He wrinkled his nose as though contemplating the thought. “Sorry, even I’m too cheap for that.”

She shoved him lightly on the chest. “Don’t worry about it. If you took me out to a nice place, I’d have to buy a new dress.”

“What’s wrong with the one you’re wearing?”

“According to my grandfather, everything. He doesn’t approve of my wardrobe.”

Mark took her arm and steered her down the street toward Casey’s, which was a few blocks away. “Well, who’s your grandfather, anyway, and what does he think you should wear? Clothes from last century? I’ve seen the floofy dresses they wore, with all the bows and big skirts. And that hair!”

“Oso Beñat.”

“What about him?”

“He’s my grandfather.”

Mark stopped dead in the sidewalk, which was kind of awkward, as he was walking at a fast clip while holding onto her elbow. “You’re shitting me.”

She shook her head. It wasn’t that she was hiding her family relations from him or anybody else, but that she avoided talking about him. So did her brother Javi. Oso Beñat was either revered or hated, and Stephanie could never tell, either, not even by political persuasion.

“You’re not joking. You were holding out on me. On all of us. You’re out there getting a scoop none of us are capable of. You devious little slut.”

“Mark, we’re going to be late for your game.”

“Why are you so freaking poor, if the richest man in the world is your near relation?”

“My dad mismanages money and can’t stay employed. Mark…” She pointed half-heartedly in the direction of the sports bar.

He did begin walking again, though this time at a slower pace. He had a dreamy, meditative look in his eyes. Stephanie hated that look. It meant he was scheming, and his schemes generally either came to nothing or caused all sorts of problems, like the time he’d crashed the governor’s son’s birthday party because he—Mark, that is—was dating the governor’s niece, and the little strumpet had promised him there was going to be a major league football game kickoff there.

Not only was there no kickoff, but when he’d broken in through the back gate with a six pack and the niece, he’d disturbed an eloquent birthday speech by the Legislative Environmental Analyst of New Mexico. The governor went all out for his son’s tenth birthday, and he was not happy to be disturbed, especially by his sister’s spoiled daughter. It turned out she’d been begging, to no avail, to plead her case to him and have him pardon her twenty-fifth ticket for OSDVWI (Operating a Self-Driving Vehicle While Intoxicated). She also wanted her car back, which he’d seized.

That was Stephanie’s precise problem with Mark and why she put off giving him a positive answer to his commitment proposal. Yes, of course, he’d asked. Mark was impetuous that way. He was a journalist of the fine, old impetuous school. He’d asked her to commit to him after just a few dates (at Casey’s).

Truth be known, she yearned to tell him yes, but she was at war with her more practical nature, which, by the way, constantly reminded her that Mark had a steady job in a field outside of robotics, one he’d kept for a full three years now. Even her practical side was losing the battle.

Once at Casey’s, she ordered a chef salad. She was lucky Casey’s served a chef’s salad, as not that long ago, they’d had nothing but fried food and alcohol. That was after the Heart Association bans were lifted—they along with most workaday restaurants went hog wild. Literally.

During Mark and Stephanie’s childhood, food regulations had become such a trying bore to the average person that they began to picket for french fries dipped in beef tallow. French fries were American! They were traditional! And being that heart attack and obesity rates didn’t decrease substantially on the hog-feed rather than eat-hog diet era, the AHA in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security eased up on their bans.

Remnants, of course, still existed, such as the new Nutrilla-is-all-American-all-day-long ad campaign. Nutrilla was the new peanut butter—a spreadable yeast product similar to Marmite, but enhanced with vitamins and bran, and given a cheesy texture through edible plastics to please the American cheese palate. It was also very cheap and staved off hunger when spread on bread or stuffed inside Toaster Tacos. That was why Stephanie lived off it.

She carefully chewed her iceberg lettuce, ham, boiled eggs, cheese, and green chile silently, watching as Mark’s excitement escalated with the beer and the game. By the time he’d downed a few pints, he’d forgotten about Oso Beñat. Or at least stopped talking about him for the present.

She hadn’t, of course. She was lost in the story, ruminating on Gilly’s versus Granddad’s stories. Nothing really surprised her regarding Gilly. If he claimed to have beaten up her granddad, she believed it. While he’d never done anything unseemly in front of Stephanie, she’d always held a simultaneous fascination and disgust for the malevolent look in his brown eyes. Those eyes said he was capable of anything: creating a grotesque soothsayer, for example.

Somehow, she had to pull herself away from these bios for a while and sit in the office mass producing enticing bylines and stories. That was what she was paid regularly to do, after all. In point of fact, she was also paid to refab others’ stories and headlines to make them more enticing. She had a real gift whenever she managed to sit her big fat butt in a chair, dull her mind, and conduct some serious output.

She sighed, both in satisfaction and exhaustion. She had a good life, composed of honorable work, a small but warm apartment, and a boyfriend. Of sorts. She watched him as he watched the screens. He was taking notes, as usual. He was the consummate sports writer. And conspiracy theorist.

Back in her grandfather’s day, the powers that be had outlawed balls in school, just as her grandfather had spoken of. The trend had started with a small school in rural New York, and the way trends spread, it had skipped the entire country, hit the West Coast, and then spread throughout the Southeast and Southwest (except for Texas), before infecting the Midwest. Finally, Texas, not wanting to seem out of date or backwards in a way that might harm children, had capitulated.

But the professional sports teams swore they still used balls. Mark, however, had different ideas. He had analyzed sports videos repeatedly, using the best tech he had available at the struggling Albuquerque Daily, had frozen thousands of milliseconds of action and had finally come to the conclusion that sports were now faked and played with invisible balls. The balls were computer generated.

That was all that was needed, really—nothing too fancy or difficult since live sporting events were rare these days. The threat of thousands of Americans sitting together in one place was too great. The charity ball events marketed at politicians and other famous people were considered to be proof against Mark’s worst suspicions. He stuck to his guns, though. It was all fake, according to him, every game more precisely choreographed than a Russian ballet.

Stephanie turned her eyes to one of the many screens and tried to focus. Maybe the beer Mark drank helped. She’d never actually tasted beer. It was outside her budget. “Hey, Mark, can I have a beer?”

“Why wouldn’t you be able to have one? Just order one,” he tersely said. He didn’t like to be interrupted while examining a game.

She ordered a beer and took a swig. It was bitter and sweet at the same time. It was like bitter-sweet soda pop, like the lo-cal variety they used to serve in elementary school. She guessed it wasn’t high-end stuff.

As the alcohol hit her blood stream, she giggled at the men on screen. It was a soccer game, for heaven’s sake, but it fit well Mark’s analogy of the Russian ballet. At some point, soccer players had discarded their shorts and shin guards for reinforced breeches. They looked like they were wearing tights.

“Mark,” she said, “they’re wearing tights.”

“Might as well be. They’re showing off their dancing skills. Watch in a minute. DeSoto has the ball. He’s going to dance. Looks like a goddamn male model. I bet that’s what they are, put up for tryouts by a whole different set of scouts. Disgusting.”

“Sounds like another one of your conspiracies,” she said, but then was silenced when a Latin-looking player kicked the ball toward the goal and missed, and then gyrated his hips around as though he’d scored. “Is that—?”

“DeSoto.”

DeSoto continued to perform what appeared to be a free-form salsa for the next five minutes. He was sleek, coordinated, and as flexible as a trained dancer.

“He’s going off script,” Mark explained. “I’m telling you, there’s a script, and it’s trending now for these models to defy the script and dance instead.”

“Unless the dance is part of the script.”

“Uh huh, I don’t think so. I’m an expert on game scripts by now.”

Stephanie took his word for it because she didn’t know what else to do. She gazed around to see how the other men were reacting to the off-script dance. The man to the right of her—Mark was to the left—was nodding emphatically.

“Amen!” the man shouted. “Now there is a true artist!”

“Mark, do you think DeSoto is a true artist?” she asked.

Far from being annoyed with her many interruptions this time, he looked pleased that she was interested. He turned to her and smiled wryly. “Absolutely. This is theater, and they’re doing impromptu. Impressive. And stupid as hell because it’s not soccer. Almost as stupid as those bow ties the football players wear.”

“The girls at work gurgle over the men in bow ties. I don’t really get it, they don’t look attractive to me. And now all the little boys are emulating them. At least I think so. Didn’t I see the players from the Jefferson Broad Gap School wearing bow ties on last week’s sports page?”

“Since they don’t have balls, I guess they gotta have fashion to keep them going,” Mark said in his flat tone of voice that often tricked Stephanie into thinking he was joking. “Be quiet for a minute. This is where the rising action is taking place. I can predict the climactic moment when either DeSoto and Kimbal are going to get in a tussle, or DeSoto’s going to score. Those are the two protagonists this game. I don’t know which one will come out on top.”

Stephanie refocused her attention on the screen, trying to see what Mark saw. In the past, he’d written articles about the games having plot lines that were modeled after the soccer field and its halfway line, its ten yards, its penalty area, etc. Stephanie wondered if Mark represented the archetypal writer, finding and discovering plots everywhere.

Stephanie didn’t have the imagination to find plots everywhere. Most journalists did, though. The Albuquerque Daily, in fact, published farcical news stories side by side with the bona fide ones. Readers had to search out the fine print to determine what was real and what was fiction. Critics complained that this trickery triggered the populace to violence, but the paper’s legal department suggested otherwise.

Sometimes, Stephanie was relieved to be branching out to biographies. No plot lines there—no need for them. At least she didn’t think so.

“Mark, do all stories need plots, even nonfictional ones?”

“Huh?”

“Do all stories need plots?”

He looked over at her, his eyes glazed. “Life is a plot that ends in a plot,” he said. And then he turned his eyes back to the plot of faux green grass on the screen.


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Chapter 8: Robot Times

In which Oso is menaced by a gun-wielding robot!
 

“Wait,” Stephanie protested. “You beat up Granddad? Because that’s not what he says. He only told the part where he used you as a ball and ended up in jail for terrorism.”

“Let me correct that deceptive notion Oso has conjured. We both ended up in jail, but not for very long. They held us until our parents could pick us up. In my case, I only had a mom. Oso’s dad picked him up.”

“So you weren’t held on charges of child terrorism until your parents could pay the fine?”

“Yes, we were. My mom paid the fines for both of us. She had a good job at Tech and a credit card. Oso’s dad had neither. His family rarely dabbled in money.”

“How did they pay their rent?”

“They grew most of their own food and took handouts for the rest. They did a lot of trading of goods, but his dad would sell a piece of furniture if they needed the cash. He was an amazing artisan.”

“I know. My mom still has some of his pieces. A chest, a bookcase, and a rocking chair. Someday, maybe she’ll give me the rocking chair. That’s what I have dibs on.” She shifted on the couch and sipped her tea, feeling dreamy.

“Yeah, so you can be like all your kind, playing the game.”

“How is inheriting a rocking chair playing a game?”

“What do you plan to do with this rocking chair? Knit? Rock babies? Do women even have babies these days?”

“Civilization hasn’t completely died out yet, so I’m assuming they do.”

“You aren’t women. You merely play at being women.”

“I don’t have to play at anything. I’m a woman by birth. How did we get on this subject? Uncle Gilly, we need to refocus.”

“Do you knit?”

“No, not much. I don’t have time for hobbies.”

“You’re admitting you do occasionally knit, then? You know how to?”

Stephanie closed her eyes for a moment, her fingers to her forehead, and thought things through. Like a teacher with a student, an interviewer had to keep the interviewee focused, allow them some leeway, but direct and redirect the conversation. This had not happened with her granddad, as he was always direct and tended not to go down rabbit trails. There was nothing of the “rabbit” about her granddad. Gilly, as he sat there, a satirical smile turning up half his mouth, was a different kind of person. He might have endless warrens in his brain which she didn’t want to get lost in.

“I have an idea. Why don’t we do these interviews with Granddad? It might be useful to write one book with two perspectives, rather than two books. Also, I’m not sure how this is going to work, with the two of you telling me different stories. I think we should do this as a threesome.”

The chill that entered the room could have frozen the summer sun. True, she had thought of the idea because it fit in with her general efficiency model, but having her granddad control the rabbit trails instead of having to do it herself…it was tempting, to say the least.

The risk was that Gilly would cease having any voice at all, even when her granddad wasn’t present. “We can talk about this later, if you want. We should get this session done first.” When Gilly continued to glare at her, his mouth clamped shut, she reassured him, “No Granddad here right now.”

“No, just his little minion,” Gilly spat.

“You lived near Granddad, right? You became friends?”

“Yes, I guess we did.”

Gilly’s mom had scrimped and pinched until she had enough to buy a parcel of land, a decent singlewide, and a manufactured outbuilding. It was, as already stated, right next door to the Beñat place. There were several empty lots’ worth of space before arriving at the crazy amputee’s place, which abutted the large empty lot belonging to Bernadette’s family. The street went around in a circle and eventually ended up back at Gilly’s house. They all lived on the same street, in other words, even though Bernadette’s house was at the back of theirs.

In recent days, there was a rumor circulating that Oso and Bernadette were an item. Oso had a special charm for girls, especially pretty ones like Bernadette. Gilly couldn’t decide whether he admired Oso or hated him. Oso was…at ease. That was all that could be said.

Perhaps the hatred was never entirely eradicated from Gilly’s perspective, but Gilly and Oso reconciled with each other the day Gilly threatened Oso with a very big robot. Standing at just over six feet tall, it was the largest robot Gilly had ever built. He had to stand on a stool to work on it. But it was clunky and had wires sticking out here and there. Essentially, it was the tin man wired up like a computer, except that it wasn’t made with tin at all, but polycarbonate, which was nearly transparent. But it looked about as dopey as the tin man. Still, it could do things, if he controlled it from the luxury of his PC inside his bedroom in the trailer.

A couple months into the school year, Gilly decided to stop riding the bus to school. The bus held too many memories of bullying. Instead, he took to riding his bike, which got him home precisely ten and a half minutes before the bus. In a strange reversal, Oso had started riding the bus to school. The rumor mill told Gilly this was because Oso and Bernadette made out in the back of the bus. Gilly doubted the veracity, as Bernadette was the type of girl no boy could touch.

For a start, she was the prettiest girl in the seventh grade. Aside from that, when the two disembarked, they were never physically attached in any way. From his dining room window, Gilly could watch them disembark from the bus, and then if he darted to the opposite dining room window, he could watch Oso walk with her down the dirt alley by the side of Agnes’ trailer and across the yard to her back porch, where her mom was usually watering her hundreds of flowerpots.

However, Gilly couldn’t see them disembarking or walking from his bedroom window, where his computer was. That’s why he had a camera mounted behind the robot eyes, which he had arranged to be standing in the middle of the drive. It had taken a lot of engineering to get the robot to the point where it could balance and walk at the height of six feet. But Gilly had managed it with the help of his uncle, who was a materials engineer. No matter that it took roughly forty-five seconds for the robot to take a step. It was essentially a grandiose suit of armor. With a camera. And airguns, created with co2 cartridges, mounted on its arms.

From behind his computer screen, Gilly watched and waited. When Oso and Bernadette wandered into view, he shouted via the mic system, “Stop or die!”

It was perhaps the only time he’d ever seen Oso look startled. So did Bernadette, though she didn’t scream as Gilly had hoped. Oso, recovering quickly, walked up to the robot and knocked on it, as though there might be a gremlin hiding inside operating it. Gilly had played out numerous scenarios in his head, but not one in which the fear and wonderment would be lost so quickly. He had to act fast in order to recoup.

With his sights set, he raised one of the air rifles and shot at the intended target, a garbage can across the road. Bernadette, her eyes wide, reached out as though to take hold of Oso’s arm, who appeared to shove her roughly away from him; Gilly couldn’t see, as Oso was so close to the robot he was out of camera range. That was a pity because in a matter of seconds, the camera range was the wide blue desert sky. It was a picturesque shot, with a V of geese flying overhead, so peaceful, so…. Oso had knocked the robot over! Gilly’s life work, not respected, not feared, bowled over by a stupid fascist pig.

Gilly leaped from his chair and hurtled himself through the trailer and out the door. “What have you done?”

Oso shoved him in the same way he’d done to the robot, but Gilly stood his ground. “What have you done? Were you shooting at us?”

“No, I was shooting at Mrs. Brennan’s garbage can! It’s just an air rifle. It shoots BBs.”

“You’re such a dumbass! You still could have killed someone. Bernadette was terrified, weren’t you, Bernadette?”

The mock pretense of care in Oso’s voice made Gilly sneer. “She was not. She didn’t even look terrified. That was you who looked like you were going to wet your pants. I’ll bet you did wet your pants. Maybe your babysitter Bernadette will change your diaper for you.”

At that, Bernadette let out an indignant sounding gasp. Clearly, she wasn’t into being a babysitter. Now wanting to ignore Oso’s presence in his driveway, Gilly dropped to his knees and checked his robot for damage. Oso leaned over him.

“Did you make that thing?”

“Yes. Well, my uncle helped me. But, yeah.”

“That is awesome. What’s it made out of?”

“Polycarbonate.”

“Where did you get the money?”

“We started it when I was seven. Five years ago.” Gilly shrugged as though it were no big deal. No big deal at all—something every fatherless child did with his uncle. “Polycarbonate’s not that expensive.”

“How did you shoot it from over there? How do you operate it?”

“From my computer. Dumbass.” The last part he mumbled.

“Can I see?”

The eager desperation in Oso’s eyes gave Gilly some satisfaction—quite a bit more, in fact, than the fantasies of causing Oso to wet his pants. Oso, a non pants-wetting boy, suddenly admired Gilly. Gilly felt no little smugness at the realization. Sarcastic retorts flashed across his mind; so did thoughts of extorting money form Oso. Finally, he decided an alliance with the fascist pig might be of greater value.

“Sure, why not? Wanna Coke? I mean, you can’t have a Coke anywhere near my computer, but….” Suddenly, Gilly remembered Bernadette, who still stood there, her arms crossed, mild interest lighting her eyes. “And your girlfriend’s not allowed.”

“I am not his girlfriend.”

“You only wish you could be,” Oso retorted. “Now go on home, we have computer stuff to do. Stuff you wouldn’t be interested in.”

“I’m surprised you’re interested,” Gilly told him, “since you’re just a dumb jock.”

“Yeah, whatever, hurry up.” And Oso shoved him toward the trailer.

Oso was such a barbarian, but perhaps a trainable one. “Help me stand him up again, if you want to see anything with the camera.”

“Oh, sure.”

They set the robot upright, and then headed for the house. With just the tiniest bit of remorse, Gilly glanced back at Bernadette. Why hadn’t he invited her inside? It might have been the first and only chance he had to bring a pretty girl in his room. She stood there, her arms still crossed, staring at them forlornly. Finally, she walked away with her shoulders hunched.

The glimmer of remorse disappeared, however, as he and Oso disappeared inside his room. Bernadette would have been a distraction, nothing more.

“Wow, you have a whole room and desk to yourself,” Oso said.

Again, Gilly could see an eager desperation on Oso’s face. Oso was jealous of what Gilly had: a nice computer in an uncluttered space all to himself. Smug came closer to what Gilly felt, knowing that.

“Okay, so camera’s on, and there’s no activity. Wait, wait, here comes Agnes. She goes for walks around this time.” Gilly giggled wickedly. “Stop and pay the toll!” he shouted at Agnes with the mic.

She halted and looked around for the source of the voice. When she spied the robot, she backed away.

“How do you shoot?” Oso asked. “Oh, I see.” And he reached out to play the controls as though it were a video game.

“You can’t shoot a crazy old lady!” Gilly shouted.

But it was too late; Oso had already pulled the trigger, as it were. “I don’t know what your problem is. I was only shooting at the garbage can,” he said mildly as the BB hit its target.

Agnes gave a muffled shriek, and she ran away as fast as she could hobble. Gilly swung the camera view in the direction she ran. After a few feet, she lost her footing and crumpled to the dirt. Then Bernadette came into view and knelt by Agnes’ side. Apparently, she was always willing to help someone in distress. Or show Oso and Gilly how bad they were by being dishonestly good.

“Not her again,” Oso said. “She interferes with everything.”

The boys looked at each other and understood, or at least, Gilly believed they did. They were on the same wave length for the first time. They got up and ran outside, past the robot, and to Agnes’ side, where they shoved Bernadette out of the way. More indignant noises.

“You have serious problems, Oso,” Bernadette said. “I think you need to get help. You’re like a sociopath or something.”

Bernadette was always focused on Oso. Wasn’t the robot Gilly’s? He was the one who should have been labeled a sociopath. Oh, my God, what was he thinking? He was jealous that Bernadette had called Oso a sociopath. Why was she still hanging around, anyway? Couldn’t she accept rejection for what it was?

Ignoring her as best he could, Gilly offered Agnes his hand. At first, the crazy lady shied away from him, but she finally relented and allowed him to help her up, using his shoulder as a crutch all the way to her trailer. But she didn’t look happy at all, and she didn’t appear to trust either of them in the least. Without any more ado, she went inside her trailer and slammed the door shut in their faces.


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Chapter 7: Fascist Pigs

In which the order of humanity is determined by pigs!
 

It wasn’t true what Granddad had said. Gilly did agree to the book project, and he also fed her when she dropped by for the first session. Gilly’s house wasn’t tucked away in the Sandia mountains as Granddad’s was. Rather, he lived in a stale neighborhood in north Albuquerque. And in a stale neighborhood, his was the stalest of them all. The color was a drab pale desert orange contrasted with rows of brick facades surrounding the windows and running up columns. It was an older home that showed its age. It was badly in need of new stucco, for a start. The stucco was crumbling off from a central point that radiated outward, as though its destruction had been caused by an earth-shattering blast.

To find the front door, first Stephanie had to find the gate, and then the walkway. Trumpet vines snaked in and out of the fence on one side of the gate. On the other, the morning glory vines had wrapped their tendrils and opened their insidiously beautiful heads. Apparently, Gillilander—or Uncle Gilly, as she thought of him—didn’t use the front door. She looked back at the driveway that was partially cleared of weeds and assumed he made his escapes through the driveway via his car.

She broke through the vines, thinking of herself as a veritable adventurer reporter, the kind she admired and whose words she regularly read from the comfort of her bathtub. Here she was, a real journalist, breaking through the treacherous, man-eating vines of North Albuquerque. She stepped in the gate, softly in her braided flats—softly because she was afraid of snakes. Anything could be hiding in the mass of prickly and tough-stalked weeds barring her path. Judging by the moldering smell, organic substances were the best bet. Eventually, she hacked her way through the growth, found Gilly’s door, and pounded on it.

He must have been waiting, as the door cracked open immediately. He peered out. “Did you see any cars following you?” he asked.

“No. Should there have been?”

He opened the door farther, and allowed her to enter his shadowy foyer before shutting out what little light bled through the weed and desert willow infested yard. Once closed, the smells changed from moldering and organic to bookish and dusty.

“I doubt you would have noticed, anyway. They’re better than that. Sometimes, they send spy cameras in the form of dragonflies.”

“Who does?”

“I’m never exactly sure. The government. Foreign spies. Enemies.”

“Do you have enemies?”

“Every man in my position has enemies. Is that an honest question? I’m one of the most hated men still alive today.”

She didn’t argue with that. She simply didn’t understand why spies would send drones to watch him. He was a has-been in the tech world.

He led her into the living room, cut off from the entryway by means of a brick wall, and offered her a seat on an old leather couch. She was surprised by the cleanliness of the place. That was not to say it was uncluttered, but the clutter was in neat little piles. The floor was swept tile, the furniture of a similar quality to the old leather couch. In the corner, a fat wood stove was surrounded by more brick. It was a large room, and the house itself, a large flat suburban sprawl. Gilly had tried marriage and family for a while. He had clearly never downsized, but, then, neither had Granddad.

“Uncle Gilly, this is a very nice place. How do you keep it up?”

“I’ve had the same maid for twenty years. She’s the only person I can trust to be discreet.”

“Discreet about what?”

“I still build things,” he retorted, in an impatient clipped tone. “Sometimes.”

“Ah.”

“And I need order to work.”

“Why don’t you hire a yard worker?”

“I don’t work outside,” he said, as though it were obvious. “And I can’t trust yard workers. I’ve had trouble with them in the past.”

“Well, that makes sense.”

She hesitated. The reporter in her wanted to ask what it was he was “still building” and what exactly the yard workers had done to lose his trust. But she knew by now that questioning him along these lines would be a risky proposition. Either he would begin mistrusting her for asking too many questions, or he would bore her with hours of paranoid tales, which she certainly hadn’t come all this way to hear. She could have read them in his pamphlets, in any case.

Instead, she pulled out her recorder and teletyper. “We can get started any time you’re ready.”

From the other room, a whistle rose up in angry protest. “I was just making tea,” he said. “Do you want black, green, or herbal?”

“Um.” Stephanie didn’t drink tea. “Green?”

“Smoked or fermented?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you choose for me?”

He waved at her as though he couldn’t be bothered with such ignorance and stalked off. This was going to be a fun interview. When he returned, it was with a tray containing a small Japanese clay teapot, two clay mugs, and a plate of Saltine crackers.

“Thank you, Uncle Gilly,” she said, and picked up a cracker. She hadn’t had saltine crackers since she was sick with the stomach flu in the sixth grade.

“They’re the finest saltines available,” he informed her.

She almost spewed the crumbs from her mouth.

“I buy them fresh every day so that they have the delicate crispiness and slight tang of salt I desire.”

“They’re, uh, very nice.” She picked up the tea mug and sipped. “Hey, do you think the soothsayer would want to speak to me?”

He sneered at her. “I disengaged her.”

“You what?”

“I disengaged her. She was illegal, anyway. It’s illegal to create heads with no bodies.”

Disengaging meant removal of the brain stem. It was basically capital punishment for Minäs. Why or how a head could have a brain stem to be disengaged was a little beyond her imagination.

She brushed the crumbs from her pants. “I guess we should get started then.”

“Yes, we should. My memoirs. I’ve been wanting to tell my side of the story for a long time. I can’t have Beñat telling it for me.” He glowered over the top of his teacup. “He will, you know. He controls everything. All the time. At least what he can manage to control.”

“I thought you and Granddad were best friends.”

“Best friends? No. He’s more like the brother I never had who’s a constant pain in the neck.”

Stephanie hid her smile. “Of course, he already has a lot of brothers he isn’t close to at all. He doesn’t try to control their lives.”

“No, he’d had enough of that in his youth, playing mother and father to them. I was his brother. They were his kids.”

“Oh.”

“There was a time in my life,” said Gillilander, “when I knew I’d broken through. It started with a girl. So I tried out for the airfoot team.”

“What about the girl?”

“She’s not important.”

“Well, it’s your story. You said it started with her.”

Gillilander’s jaw clenched. “Will you just…!”

“Okay.”

The summer before seventh grade, a cute little redhead fell for Gilly at cowboy camp. They had become penpals, as she lived with her family in Sacramento and had gone to cowboy camp with her grandparents, who attended the camp-meet every year. As for Gillilander, his mother had grown up Catholic, but had experienced a religious transformation while watching a TV preacher one Sunday. Although Gillilander wasn’t then and never became anything more than a skeptic—if one wanted to be nice about it—and an atheist if one didn’t, he enjoyed the experience of cowboy camp: brisket, beans, chile, and coffee every night; pancakes and bacon every morning; campfires with s’mores; guitars and singing; races and water balloon fights.

As it turned out, Gillilander grew to be a tall slender, broad-shouldered boy, and he was faster than the other boys at camp, if he didn’t trip and fall. He was the athlete that almost was.

To the redhead, he became the legend he always was in his own mind. He knew he was meant for great things. It was the teachers and admins at his school who’d been misguided in thinking him the village idiot. He could speak on all manner of brilliant topics, such as supercomputers, and it didn’t take much to impress her, as her life had been consumed up to that point with shopping malls and slumber parties.

That was about it pertaining to the redhead. Gillilander couldn’t even remember her name. They’d become penpals for precisely two months and then the correspondence had withered away. Gillilander didn’t have much patience for writing, anyway. He had plans: he was going to become a soccer/football/airfoot star, even after they outlawed balls. During tryouts, he’d been neck and neck with Oso as they did laps on the track. Because he could easily become winded, he had to pace himself and then let it all out at the end, where he beat Oso the first day due to the effect of surprise. Previously, nobody knew Gilly could run. Oso was not to be beat, though, and had a great deal more endurance than Gilly did. Once Oso realized Gilly was a force to be reckoned with, he upped his game.

In his wildest dreams, Gillilander saw himself as Oso’s arch nemesis. Oso was the top student, the top athlete: the boy who could interest eighth grade girls. Bit by bit, Gillilander pushed Oso out of the top spot in every class…except English. Just as Gillilander didn’t have the patience for writing letters, he also didn’t have the patience to understand literature. He could and did read all manner of nonfiction, but his comprehension of electronics manuals didn’t help him much with Shakespeare.

Nor did Oso, Gillilander suspected, but Oso was a genius at bluster. For that, Gillilander hated him. After all, if it was one piece of fiction Gilly could understand, it was Animal Farm. And it was clear from some of Oso’s rather barbed classroom comments that Oso saw Gillilander as, at most, a farm animal attempting to be a pig, while he—Oso—was clearly Napoleon.

“So, you’re a fascist?” Gillilander countered when the English teacher had, yet again, allowed Oso to run off at the mouth during a class discussion of Orwell’s novel.

“Why not? Fascism is the way of the world. Look what happened to the farmers. You know the way farmers are. They just work. That’s all they do. They can’t stop the fascists of the world, who are the ones who don’t work. Either you work, or you’re a fascist.”

Gilly’s face fell into a hard glare. “There’s nobody in between? Nobody who just works the system, makes a lot of money, and doesn’t act like a fascist pig?”

Oso snorted. He was always snorting. If he snorted, it meant he thought he was right and everybody else was stupid.

“Fascist pig,” Gilly muttered.

Oso never muttered. “You don’t know jackshit. The people in between are stupid rats, and they usually don’t make a lot of money.”

“All right,” the teacher said. “Language, Oso. Let’s get back on track.”

“See?” Oso wrote on a sheet of notebook paper and pushed it to where Gilly could see it. “Teachers are fascists. She won’t even call me by my name.”

“Teachers are farmers,” Gilly wrote back.

“Nope, they’re stupid Snowballs.”

Gilly attempted the glare again. It wasn’t that he disagreed with Oso. Every boy knew by that age what teachers were. But there was no way he was agreeing with the biggest turd in school. Apparently, Oso felt the same way about Gilly because after class, he took Gilly by the collar of his jacket and shoved him against a locker.

“Don’t ever call me a fascist again,” he said, in a tone of voice just loud enough for Gilly to hear.

Gilly gritted his teeth and made no response. Instead, he gazed levelly in Oso’s, believe it or not, not unkind eyes. Oso was bluster; that’s all he was. And impulsive—he was also that. His impulsive behavior, such as shoving Gilly into a locker in one fell swoop when it appeared the clusters of boys and girls were leaving their classroom peacefully, would be his undoing. Gilly understood this, and it pleased him. Gilly himself was anything but impulsive. You could bet that anything Gilly did had been planned out in advance.

Gilly understood more than just that. He was the type of boy who had spent his entire childhood observing others, while those others had thought he was a retard. But it didn’t take an awful lot to realize what had happened to Oso’s psychology.

Gillilander lived in the same neighborhood as Oso. But he hadn’t always. Gilly knew what had happened to Oso’s father, as the local paper, El Defensor Chieftain, had covered every new update. Oso’s dad was a subsistence farmer who had sold his homemade furniture and did contract work here and there, helping put on a roof or building a garage, until he’d bought a small piece of land where he could live in peace in a tiny house with his wife and ever-expanding family.

Unfortunately, he’d fallen behind on his property taxes, and he’d gotten in a fight with the government over the illegitimacy of property taxes and the reality of a man never being able to own a plot of land. At best, homeowners were renting from the government. It seemed Oso’s father was the originator of a grassroots movement that had a few freak lawyers on his side, as the entire country sprang up with people protesting the property tax.

Oso’s father had inevitably lost, and the movement was silenced. People’s properties were seized because the freak lawyers didn’t have big enough backers. All that Oso’s father had worked hard for was taken from him, as he was unable to pay off the taxes, not even on the supposedly generous payment plan offered him.

And so the family ended up in Gilly’s neighborhood, renting a plot where they could continue their lifestyle of subsistence farming and no-longer-cool poverty. Yes, their poverty had seemed cool for a split second when fighting against the government.

Now they were just fools. The father was a pot-smoking loafer who barely provided for his family; the mother an ever-pregnant slut. She was the last of the bohemians, or something like that. She painted awful paintings, danced like an idiot with twirling scarves at every community dance on the plaza. Oso, as the eldest by default due to his older sister’s propensity to disappear inside books, was the family bitch. If he didn’t dictate order, his siblings would be unwashed, unfed little urchins dressed in rags.

Gilly suspected that, like him, Oso didn’t really belong. Oso would be the one who would escape. In another reality, Gilly might have taken Oso into his mother’s outbuilding and shown him his various robots. Oso was actually intelligent—and he lived next door. But Oso was a fascist, and fascists didn’t have time for nobodies in their regime.

Gilly tried out for airfoot because, even though it was a farce, it was still the only way to not be a nobody. And he could run fast, which brings the story full circle.

One day at practice, when Gilly had slipped around the other boys and was near to making a goal with the invisible ball, the unthinkable happened. His shoelaces, always threatening to come undone, had done so, and Gilly tripped. He picked himself up and bent down to tie his laces. As he did so, a shadow behind him covered the sun. Before he knew what was happening, somebody kicked him on the seat of his pants, right over the goal line and shouted, “Goal! Goal!”

Before long, both teams were shouting the same.

Oso! Gillilander seethed inside. He was an asset to his team, wasn’t he? He could run fast, slip around other players like nobody’s business. The coaches did nothing about Oso’s behavior. They didn’t even seem to have noticed, with their air of nonchalance. Stupid fat pigs—that’s what they were. It suddenly dawned on Gillilander that he had to take Oso down once and for all, take him by surprise, just as he’d done by beating Oso at running that first day.

As the game wore on, Gillilander planned and lost many chances due to his hesitation. And then he saw his chance. Because he was a fast runner, Gillilander was an outfielder. Oso, with his power, was a kicker, but Oso was coming his way, directing the invisible ball toward Gilly, whose shin he “accidentally” kicked. The pain shut down the delays in Gilly’s brain. Action—reaction. He shoved Oso. Hard. And then, as Oso had been taken by surprise, Gilly punched him in the gut. And then he punched him again, and Oso fell backward onto the field. Gilly jumped on top of him and went ballistic on the stupid fascist pig’s face.


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Chapter 6: Spherical Bigotry

In which Oso’s worst nightmare comes true: balls are outlawed!
 

Oso’s chest was filled with certain doom as he and his mother drove through the Socorro fall evening, the windows down on the minivan, the inky air filtering in. They drew up to the school, and then they walked through the empty hallways, his mother shouting, “Hello, hello!” until they discovered that the PTA meeting was in the library.

Of course it was. And it should have been called the MTA—that is, the Mother Teacher Association—as it was almost entirely composed of mothers, with one token friendly father. This sordid group was busy discussing whether to outlaw the use of balls in intramural sports when Oso and his mom swept in and settled in some seats around a long table scattered with middle school library books. The room went silent for a few beats before the woman who’d been speaking continued.

A boy in Albuquerque had suffered a spinal injury playing soccer the year before; that was what had inspired the discussion. And so, that ought to be the end of balls, the speaker argued. Balls wouldn’t disappear without a fight, according to another mom, who called herself a conservative. Balls hadn’t harmed them—look, did anybody see any harm done? They had their spines intact, as in their childhoods, spines were made of sturdier stuff. They were rigid, in those days. Made of steel.

But, as another mom put it, “If even one child is harmed, it’s not worth it. Not even one child.” Her words, being profound, received a hearty clap from the other red-faced women in the room.

It was incredibly hot. The heat had been cranked up for unknown reasons, and Oso wondered why these crazy adults didn’t hold their meeting in the much larger and cooler gym, where there was a net filled with basketballs. The debate had got him thinking about balls. And it made him squirm. He didn’t like the topic. Or libraries. Or mothers.

His mother wasn’t a conservative, nor was she one of the moms who cared about each and every child. As she crossed one leg over the other, her silk robe fell open so that the barest edge of her flowery silk shorts were exposed. “You want to outlaw balls like you banned dangerous playground equipment?” she asked—for clarification, it seemed.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to outlaw balls altogether,” one mom quite rightly spat with a fair amount of frustration in her tone. “You conservatives are always worried about your precious rights being taken away, but you misrepresent fact.”

It was funny to hear his mom labeled a conservative. Conservatives lived…a little differently from his family. Well, as it turned out, and Oso should have guessed it, his mom was against anyone who tried to destroy what she considered fun at any given moment. And balls were fun. She herself liked tennis. She had played a lot of tennis as a younger woman, before she’d taken up free-form dancing with scarves.

“Childhood is all about balls,” his mom shouted with conviction. “Don’t you remember dodge-ball? It was one of the few ways you could smash the popular girls in the face without being sent to the principal’s office.”

There was a brief pause in the proceedings as this bit of wisdom was digested by the other adults in the room. “You do see what I mean,” the mother of not-one-child said. “Competition is harmful.”

“You’re never going to rid the world of competition,” Oso’s mom said.

Oso nodded emphatically. For once, he agreed with his mom.

Another mother, unsurprisingly, didn’t. “That’s like saying poverty shouldn’t be dealt with because there’s no way to get rid of it. It’s a cop out. It’s why imbalances still exist in the world today. We tolerate them.”

“And balls represent all the injustices in the world,” Oso’s mom laughed. “Well, I’m a juggler, baby.”

“So am I,” Oso piped up. He was, literally. His mom had taught him to juggle. His mom could be fun, when drugs or alcohol were involved. And Oso could have fond thoughts of the fun, if he forgot temporarily that his mom would let them all starve in order to have it.

The protestations were no good, though. Balls were outlawed just as all the fun play equipment had been. Some girl had hit her head on the parallel bars, and so one of each was removed. Oso’s old elementary school playground still had odd single bars that nobody knew what to do with, as anytime a boy or girl tried to do spins on them, the playground assistant would blow her whistle. And every time somebody tried to climb the pole that used to have a rope and ball hanging off it, the assistant would blow her whistle. In fact, she would blow her whistle anytime any of them moved too much.

Apparently, his vision of the future had been a bleak one for Oso and his sports career. After precisely one minute of PE class, he was tired of throwing, catching, and kicking invisible balls. The world of invisible play and shrill whistles was dull. The referees, or umpires, depending on the game, suddenly had a new set of complex rules whereby they determined whether an invisible ball had actually found its way into the hoop or been caught in the outfield or found its way past the goalie.

As soccer was his chosen after-school sport, his boredom inspired him to kick other boys’ shins instead of the invisible balls, and pretend that the kicks were accidental, based off momentum. When an object, such as a foot, was set into motion, it couldn’t be stopped until it collided with another object. It was pure physics, really, and the coaches and umps and refs had to know this. But they didn’t seem to have minds made for science, and Oso was often benched for breaking the rules.

There had to be another way. Oso’s mind was always planning another way. One afternoon, while running around on a field, ostensibly playing the game that had once been known as soccer and then became known as football, as that was European, until somebody thought that even a European term should be changed due to the potential for the word “ball” to trigger bad behavior in susceptible boys, and was henceforth called “airfoot,” Oso spotted the booger-eater Gillilander bend down to tie his shoelaces near the goal line. With a deft kick to the seat of Gillilander’s pants, he propelled the boy across the goal line, which inspired the goalie to step clean out of the way.

The boys on Oso’s team went wild. They whooped and screamed, “Goal! Goal! Goal!”

It took a while for the complacently pudgy coach and umpire to respond. Nothing like this had happened under the new system of ball-less sports. The coach scratched his belly and adjusted his hat. Then he called the police, who booked Oso on charges of child terrorism. That is, not on charges of being a child who was a terrorist, but a person who struck terror into the hearts of captive children, for which there was a no-tolerance policy. The generalized whoop-whooping being mistaken for panic, Oso was dutifully locked up until his cash-free parents could pay the fines.

Oso Beñat fell into silence, and the immediate world of glaring waitresses and unruly Minäs seeped back into his consciousness. As a boy, he’d hated reading because it was a waste of time, just as fantasizing was a waste of time. Existing in the present was the only way to live. But the telling of history was also important, and wasn’t this history?

“Why did you call Beñat a pseudo surname?” his granddaughter broke in.

“Because it was one of my ancestors’ first names, used as a last name because it was easier to spell and sounded more Spanish than the crazy Basque surname we had.”

“Which was?”

“Intxausti.”

“Oh. I guess I should take note of that. How do you spell it?”

He wrote it out for her. “Your mother taught you nothing, I guess.”

“Thankfully, I have you, Granddad.” She typed out the name. “So, basically, both your names are false. Instead of Oso Beñat, you could have been Tomi Intxausti.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“I can’t imagine,” she said and shook her head. “It’s almost as bad as poor Uncle Gilly.”

“Speaking of, I’ll go ahead and send him a request for you.”

“Yes, please do. I want his side of the story. If you called him a booger-eater, I wonder what he called you.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was something ingenious.”

“You don’t know?” Stephanie asked.

“No. He wouldn’t have dared call me anything to my face.”

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Chapter 5: Chicken Scratch Visions

In which Oso learns that doom is cloaked in a silk robe!
 
As he scattered feed in the chicken yard, he thought of the prosthetic leg and how hideous it was. It was like his sisters’ dolls, almost but not quite real, which made them creepy. He supposed it didn’t matter, as long as it did the job. In that case, though, why not just use a wooden leg like pirates on TV wore? The medical community could surely come up with a better model.

Heck, he could come up with a better model. At some point in his twelve years, he’d decided to become a doctor. Not a family doctor, but a wealthy neurosurgeon at the top of his field. He knew it could happen; it wasn’t fantasy. It was real. Not that neurosurgeons designed legs, but…why couldn’t they have a peripherally related business on the side? Maybe he could design prosthetic brains. That sounded like a great idea. Prosthetic brains that resembled the greatness of his own brain for those who needed a crutch, which was just about everybody.

He searched for eggs in the laying house, and then in the clumps of weeds where some of the hens liked to hide them. He poked the lone rooster with a stick, and the rooster trotted off, its coxcomb wobbling. The September sun was too hot; the yard stank; the prickly weeds stung Oso’s bare feet. Mosquitoes and gnats swarmed him, the gnats biting at his ears and the mosquitoes sucking at his forearms and legs.

He scowled and studied the apple tree for damage. There was none—Agnes was the clear loser. And then his ears picked up on a resonant pitch of silence in the air. It was pleasant rather than an irritation, and he breathed it in deeply. The wind picked up. It filtered its way through the leaves of the apple tree. It was a free swamp cooler, a sweet, sweet luxury throughout the hottest months. September was a little cooler than August, but only by a few degrees.

Uncannily, the lifeblood of the tree warmed under the palm of his hand. The warmth crept its way up his arm until it circulated inside him. His body began to shake with minor heat tremors.

His mouth went slack, the air staled, the evening sun corrupted into yellow fluorescent. How it was possible he didn’t understand, but he was suddenly in the school library with his mom and a dozen other women. The air was thick with tension, and his ears buzzed. Deep inside, he felt a sense of panic that seemed to have nothing to do with the obvious nightmare scenario.

Yes, it was a nightmare to be trapped inside a hot school library with a dozen women. Who were they? What were they doing? A woman asked a question Oso didn’t catch, except for the petulant tone. His mom responded with a ludicrously high-pitched laugh, like she was high.

His mom was almost perpetually high, so that wasn’t unusual. But this—this image of her inside his school library made his scalp prickle. His mom didn’t go to his school, not for any reason. She wasn’t exactly what one would call an involved parent.

If he’d been a different boy, he might have had a panic attack—an asthma attack? Or perhaps, he would have shrunk down in one of the middle school chairs, as far as he could go, his head hiding in his hands. He was not, however, that kind of boy. He could face this. The problem was simple: he wasn’t exactly sure why he had to.

Then as abruptly as it had begun, the vision dissipated. He started. What had he just imagined? It was ludicrous that his mother would go to his school for any reason, let alone when there was a crowd of other mothers present. And if there was one activity he avoided, it was visiting libraries. Libraries were nightmarish places.

His brain sorted the possibilities: maybe he was fated to go to the library and had been given a vision. His dad was an agnostic who believed in fate. His mom, on the other hand, used the female pronouns for a goddess but was an atheist. For some reason, this meant she was openly polyamorous. Or a slut, as most people in town called her, Socorro’s M Mountain standing for good old social shaming known as Mitote.

Oso didn’t believe in fate. There was no God; there couldn’t be a God. No God would allow or tolerate his parents’ idiocy. He, therefore, discarded the notion that he’d had a vision. If there was a god/dess, he/she wouldn’t waste his/her time giving him visions of his school library. It was more likely the school year and all its stifling lack of charm was already getting to him. Perhaps he had a secret fear of failure. He had a paper looming for his English class, and he needed to plunge in the depth of the library in order to complete the paper properly.

Nope. Come to think of it, he didn’t fear anything. Therefore, it had to be a sudden foreknowledge that he was made for better stuff and needed to act the part even when surrounded by a bunch of biddies, of female or fowl, and get his shit together.

He shook his head to clear it, and a wave of dizziness passed over like a cloud, prickling his head. Never mind. He had things to do. He finished collecting the eggs and cleaned them carefully under the garden hose. Once the cold weather set in, there wouldn’t be very many eggs, just as there would be little milk to eke out of the nanny goats’ udders. Winter was not the best season for eating.

“Alex!” he shouted, as he slammed his way back in the house.

His elder sister was sitting at the cluttered kitchen table, hiding behind a book. “What?” she asked, irritation straining her voice.

“What are you doing?”

“Clearing the table.”

Sometimes he wanted to smack her. “Would you stop reading and help?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Make some damn tortillas so we don’t have to have just beans for dinner.”

“You really trust me to make tortillas?”

“Yeah, dumb ass. I’ll be standing right here, stirring the damn pot of beans. I’ll make sure you don’t burn them.”

“Why don’t you make them if you’re so concerned about my cooking?”

“Cuz I’m not going to be the only kitchen bitch, beyotch.”

“Oh, shut up, dipwad. And stop swearing. It doesn’t become you.”

He flipped her off for good measure as she languidly rested her book spine down on the filthy tabletop, adjusted her glasses, and tied her hair up in a ponytail holder she kept on her arm. She had their dad’s blond hair (presumably), a great big mane of it.

She washed her hands just as languidly and then set about stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, water, and lard. Yes, lard. Their dad insisted it made flat breads tender and delicious—none of that heart-healthy synthetic oil stuff for the Beñat family.

As the kitchen filled with the smell of tortillas on the pancake grill, the younger siblings crawled out of the woodwork like cockroaches. He could hardly blame them. They were all just a little hungry most of the time.

“Sit down and shut up!” Oso hollered at them

“You don’t need to be mean,” Alex said.

He grunted at her. “Yeah, I do.”

One of the middle boys grabbed the butter crock from the counter. He managed to scrape out and smash about two tablespoons on a hot tortilla before Oso grabbed it from him.

“No butter!” he shouted. “It’ll be gone. Just eat them plain.”

At that point, their dad, covered in his sanding dust, entered the house through the kitchen door. “Let the little ones eat butter, Oso. It’s good for them.”

“Dad. The nannies have already stopped giving good milk. There’s hardly any cream on top to make butter out of. In like two weeks, we’re not going to have any butter.”

“All the more reason to let them have it now.”

Oso scowled, but obeyed his father. Some things weren’t worth fighting about.

After dinner was scrounged to the last bean and the last tortilla crumb, Oso escaped the kitchen. Siblings three, four, and five were left to clean the mess. Their mom was in the living room scrutinizing her latest painting, her own joint hanging idly from her fingertips. She’d just returned from one of her polyamory-art-love-fest conventions and hadn’t quite recovered. Hence, the meditation, and now the painting. Not that it made much difference once she recovered. What with the vaginal flowers she had to paint, and the scarves she had to dance interpretively with, there wasn’t much time left over. Not even for the work of raising her children.

After she popped one out, she relaxed into nursing until she forgot to do it, at which point the infant was magically weaned and put on bottles of goat milk by Oso’s dad so they wouldn’t holler while he was working. At that time, the youngest, a fat boy named Barnaby, was three and couldn’t be quieted by a bottle of milk any longer. He was too old. At that very moment, in fact, he was busy yanking on his mom’s long silk robe, painted with a dragon during her boho silk-painting days.

“Darling Barnaby, I’m still recovering. You should go outside and play.”

When the disgusting filthy toddler chose to comply, Oso had to intervene. “Mom. It’s almost dark. You can’t send him outside. He stinks. Give him a bath.”

“I’ll do it,” Alex said, and she plucked him up. “You shouldn’t tell Mom to bathe the little ones when she’s distracted. She’ll leave them alone to work on her painting, and they’ll drown.”

“He’s three. He’s not going to drown.”

“I took a babysitting course, Oso. Did you?”

“Oh, shut up, you stupid beyotch. I don’t care. He’s not stupid enough to drown.”

Unexpectedly, their mom interrupted their discussion. “I wouldn’t let my own child drown, Alex Darling. At my last meditation session, I realized I needed to be more active in the lives of my children. I have an overflowing nurturing spirit, and I’ve been hoarding it with my own self-care too long. But I don’t think I’ll give Barnaby a bath. No. I’ll help Oso with his homework. My meditation brought his face to my mind.”

Oso, who’d been about to stomp off to his own small corner of the house in the midst of his mom’s stupid speech, froze. He looked at Alex, and she, too, had frozen, the heft of fat Barnaby in her poor stick arms, her eyes wide in either shock or amusement; he couldn’t tell. Barnaby used the moment to wiggle out of his sister’s arms and scamper out the back door, the screen door banging closed behind him.

“I already did my homework,” he said. “I do it first thing after school, just like you taught me.” Of course, she’d taught him no such thing, and he’d done no such thing, but it seemed right to amuse her at this moment when she needed to feel like a nurturer.

Alex rolled her eyes. “Mom, I think I know why Oso’s face was in your meditation. See, if you looked at the school calendar I put on the fridge, you would know there’s a PTA meeting at Sarracino tonight. Your nurturing spirit is telling you to be part of your son’s academic life. And you need to take Oso with you. It will be very important.”

“Hmm.” She crushed the tip of her joint in one of her hand-painted ashtrays. “I think you’re right, Alex. Let me just go put on my lipstick and change.”

“Oh, no, Mom, you don’t have time to change. You need to go now.”

She swished around in her robe, sliding her feet into her sandals. “Oso, put your feet on, we’re going to be late!” she trilled.

As their mother continued to swish through the kitchen, Oso grabbed Alex by her long blond ponytail, yanked her head down, and wrapped his arm around her neck. “You think this is going to hurt me? It’s not. But since you think it will, you’ll still pay. Hear?”

“Dad!” she gurgled, as the man came in through the back door, the escaped Barnaby in his arms.

“Alex, what did I advise you to do?”

Oso already knew what his dad had advised, which was to slam her heel between his legs, and he let her go and sidestepped her attempted kick.

“Oso, we’re going to be late,” his mom called from the kitchen.

“To where?” his dad asked sharply.

Alex looked smug. “He has a meeting at school.”

“You’d better go, then.” The father figure rubbed his head as if he couldn’t take the confusion any longer. “Alex, give this child a bath. He stinks.”

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