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.”