Welcome to my functioning family asylum.
A Normal Family
“Don’t you frickin’ fall on me, you little bastard,” I mutter to myself.
The massive hangover is taking its toll on my usual routine: stacking my mother’s empty prescription bottles into a citadel on the glass coffee table. My hands shake as I cautiously set another white-capped translucent orange piece of the wall into place. I’ve already turned the family’s Costco supply of Irish Spring soap into a pyramid in another corner of the living room. Which would have been easier if I didn’t remove each one from its box.
Last night’s bender was made possible by sneaking away from the watchful eyes of the sentries. They forget I know how to jump from my second story room and somersault onto the lawn without breaking form.
It always mystifies them how I get out, as if they didn’t pay for all those painful years of gymnastics lessons. If I don’t curb my nightly ventures, they’ll come to the epiphany of barring the windows. They’ve already installed secondary locks on all the doors for my “protection.” I know where they keep the keys, but I don’t need them. There’s a padlock on the outside of the cellar door to the basement, and I leave its key under the miniature wheelbarrow belonging to my dad’s favorite garden gnome, Ernie.
“Perfect.” The fortress of plastic Quaalude empties, replete with towers for damsels in distress, is finished.
The headache is interfering with my concentration today, and I think I smell vinegar, which is adding to the queasiness. “What comes next?” I ask myself out loud.
“You take the spaghettis out of the boxes and count them,” replies my seven-year-old sister, whistling every time she talks due to a missing front tooth.
“Duh, squirt. That was rhetorical.” I make a face at her as she opens her A Brief History of Time coloring book and flops onto the carpet. “I’m going to the kitchen. Don’t you dare touch any of my projects or I’ll…”
“I know, I know,” she says, not even turning around to face me as she selects a black crayon for what’s most likely a diagram of a warp in the space-time continuum. “Soulaej?” She asks insolently with her annoying habit of reversing the last or only word in a question. She claims it comes naturally, but I remember when she started doing it…about the same time she started walking backward through every other room she entered, along with counting and saying the alphabet backwards.
“The Stanford-Binet is cake when you’re a second grader. My scores were comparable when I was your age!”
“Wanna play ssehc?” She smirks, slightly turning her head.
“Buzz off, Maxi pad.” I storm away.
“Mom said you’re not supposed to call me that.” I hear her voice trailing after me.
Now in the kitchen, I open the door to the pantry and grab an armful of previously opened pasta boxes, setting them down on the beige Formica counter. We have five varieties of noodles and six to eight boxes of each kind. I start with the bowties and work my way through to the rigatoni.
“Two hundred sixty-nine? There were two hundred seventy-one linguini in this box yesterday!” I rush back into the pantry and scan the floors for any strays.
Nothing. I move the bags of rice and beans to see if they’re behind one of them or in a corner. I grab my throbbing head. Water, I need water, but I need to rip the pantry apart to find the lost sheep.
“Dammit!” I yell. I hear the door to the garage being unlocked and footsteps coming my way.
“Good morning, Stevie,” says my dad, in his usual chipper tone, peeking his head around the corner into the pantry while checking the three watches on his left forearm.
“Morning, Dad.” I unintentionally grumble.
“Hangover?” He has a cubed piece of a croissant hanging out of his mouth.
“No. Just a little headache. Did you touch the linguini yesterday?”
“Me? No. Ask your mom. She found your accident in the closet this morning…and you know what happens when she finds a mess.”
“Accident?” I have some foggy recollection of waking up in the closet. I picture my mother in her surgical mask, catcher’s gear, and yellow rubber gloves scrubbing the whole upper floor. That would explain the vinegar stink. Would it kill her to use Simple Green, like normal people? Strike that.
He doesn’t respond, instead opting to rummage through the fridge while whistling the “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener” tune.
I return to the dilemma at hand and grab a bottled water from the left middle shelf while inspecting the best way to move everything away from the walls, as if I’d never done so before. Removing the plastic blue tab takes more effort than usual. It cuts into my hand, so I use the corner of my plaid shirt for padding. Taking a few swigs, I charge out of the pantry, passing my dad’s Sunday morning “world famous” omelet station.
“Want one?” he asks innocently, cubing some kalamata olives and checking his watches again.
I cover my mouth so as to not vomit from the smell and sight of the ingredients and rush through the laundry room into the garage. The power drill is just where I left it, velcroed to the wall, above a Yuban coffee can filled with miscellaneous screws. I love the ripping sound as I pull it away, pounding my chest three times with my left hand, like I always do when handling a power tool.
Flinging the door open, I swagger back into the house just in time to hear what can only be my mother coming down the stairs. The slide-thud-slide is unmistakable. Mixing ludes and margaritas at El Torito every Saturday night has become her trademark. A thump marks her landing on the first floor.
“Hello, sweetie,” she says to Sigourney, named after the gorilla woman actress. I assume she’s staring at the coloring book. “Is that a…shouldn’t it be silver?”
“Nope, chartreuse and purple.”
I’m guessing that Mother shook her head during the pause, and then I hear her say, “Why?”
“Just cuz his voice sounds like a computer doesn’t mean he has no imagination.”
I finish unscrewing the last shelf just as Mother enters the kitchen in her usual tiptoeing style. She pauses, still in her bathrobe, staring into the pantry. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. “What?”
She stares a little too long, then starts laughing maniacally.
“Did you have pills for breakfast again?” I’m half angry--half trying to break the tension.
Dad doesn’t even notice our interaction. He’s too busy cutting up anchovies and jalapeños into quarter inch cubes chanting “Got’s ta, needs ta, make ya square,” which will reach its climax in about three minutes. What he does with the edges is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that when he goes into the backyard with his garden spade, he says a prayer and buries them in the flower garden. I’ve never seen him throw out any potentially edible food, even when he’s unable to stomach its imperfection.
“What?” I go red in the face trying to make Mother stop her cackling.
She briefly stops and says, “It’s just that…” Then she goes back to laughing uncontrollably.
I turn my back to her and return to scooting the shelves away from the walls.
“Hey Captain,” she calls out, which is her nickname for Dad.
“Gots ta, needs ta…”
“Oh never mind.” She methodically avoids every line in the linoleum floor’s white and green-checkered diamond pattern as she heads for the coffee pot.
The linguini is nowhere in sight. Dad’s finished his cutting and bursts into Pagliacci. The stench of the omelet freshly dropped into the preheated pan raises the contents of whatever I ate or drank last night into my throat. Mother’s leveling off each teaspoon of coffee grinds with her red chopstick. She has a collection of no less than 200 measuring spoons, some of which are metric.
“Six point four,” she exclaims. “Not too rich, not too watery.”
Dad checks his watches.
I take a deep breath and rise from my kneeled position. “Who did it?” I ask calmly, hiding my seething rage.
“Did what?” says Dad.
“Who took my linguini?”
Mother’s shoulders are rising and falling, her body trembling, but no noise is coming out.
She turns and bursts out, “I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t. Last night…you know…I just wanted to…well, it was funny last night.” She stops when she sees the sullen look on my face. She casually runs her fingers through her hair and turns back to the coffee, still on tip toes. The linoleum diamonds are, after all, only six inches square.
“Where are they?”
“In one of the rigatoni boxes.”
“The last ones I count.”
“That’s why it was…seemed so funny.” She coughs to stifle a last laugh.
My eyes narrow at her cowardly back. I know now what I must do.
I picture the Sharpie marker in the meticulously sorted pen drawer in my room and how I will change the kitchen floor in the middle of the night. Eventually, Dad will have every room carpeted. The bathrooms already are.
My little sister wakes me out of my reverie, walking backward into the kitchen, just far enough to make eye contact with me.
“Stevie, will you help me build a house of cards for my class tcejorp?”
“Sig, I’m seventeen, and I’m busy, as you can see.”
“But you stack so nicely,” she says, baiting me with praise.
“Why would you build a house of cards here for a class project?”
“I wanted to run a test first!” She sticks out her tongue at me.
Dad, having finished making his dead-waking omelet and Sig’s scrambled eggs on toast, is getting that Sunday morning meeting look about him. His watches simultaneously go off, each one with a different hymnal tune. I can always make out A Mighty Fortress and Amazing Grace, but the third is too obscure and muffled.
“Okay family,” Dad announces, checking his synchronized watches. “It’s time.”
We all groan, coming to attention in our respective places in the kitchen.
“As you were,” he says, reverentially removing his favorite leather bound book from its special drawer. An outsider watching him unlatch its sacred belt strap would think it was 17th Century tops. Looking away, as if blinded by angel’s light, he cracks open the book to a random page and slides, then presses his finger to a particular spot. Looking back, he exclaims, “Batman is punching Two-Face. What is the moral?”
“That we shouldn’t lie,” chirps my sister.
“That law enforcement is cruel and just as evil as the criminal,” proclaims Mother, punctuating the last word with an acidic belch. “’Scuse me.”
“I think it’s more about the hideousness of human nature than the necessity to fight fire with fire,” says Dad wistfully. “Stevie?”
I’m staring vacuously at my cereal cabinet. “Um…is it nine yet?” I only have so much tolerance for Dad’s Sunday comic book ethics.
Dad looks at his watches. “It’s thirty seconds…now. But we still need your interpretation before proceeding to breakfast.”
“I’m going to go with, Batman represents the Übermensch, and is therefore above the law, and Two-Face represents chaos and order, the twin disasters that are man’s fate. Even the greatest try to fight against them, but neither will ever be vanquished.”
“Show off!” Sigourney snaps.
“Backward primate,” I reply.
She puts her hands on her hips and stomps off backwardly, snatching her plate on the way to the living room. Dad’s watches go off again, this time with the tunes “Here Comes the Sun,” “Good Day, Sunshine,” and what I think is an obnoxiously peppy Gloria Estefan song.
“Breakfast time,” Dad declares.
I take the drill back into the garage and re-Velcro it to the wall above the coffee can, then salute it three times. Reentering the laundry room, I open a fresh bar of soap and scrub my hands and under my nails. I notice the three discarded “once-used” bars of green soap in the trash. At least we’ve got that. Now, to open a fresh box of Fruit Loops. I open the fridge, the top shelf devoted to individual-sized unopened cartons of milk. Dad checks his watches. Mother tiptoes to her oatmeal and vodka cabinet.
It’s now ten o’clock and, as always, we managed to eat, get into our Sunday best, load up in the station wagon, and arrive at our consummation. Dad did have to check the locks three times and return to the house to make sure he had closed the garage door, but we understand. Sigourney laced her dress shoes backward today (the bow tied at the toe), which held us up a bit. Mother couldn’t measure out her oatmeal just right and refused to eat until Dad found her a pouch with the ounces listed on the side. I found what was probably a burnt loop in my cereal and had to throw away my last box. It took me a while to decide whether to try something new or go hungry. I had a pack of Skittles in my room and opted for pouring milk over them.
Nothing that came before really matters, though. We are here, at just the right time to engage in our family’s Sunday ritual. We’re parked, sitting in the wagon. Our license plate reads “NORMALS,” just like our mailbox, which Dad opens and closes several times daily, even on holidays.
“Our Father,” says Dad, and we bow our heads, crossing ourselves in unison. “Let us be thankful.” His watches go off again, but I never notice what songs are playing to mark the close of his brief prayer. Dad’s grinning from ear to ear. We all have our mouths slightly open with awe and relish, awaiting the benediction.
“Here it comes!” He says with glee. The sound of smashing and crunching is an amazingly fresh experience every week. “VW’s got punch.”
“It’s a BMW, Captain,” Mother corrects smugly.
“Puh-leez,” I say with a laugh, loosening my girly parochial school tie.
They both turn around and stare at me.
“It’s clearly an Infiniti,” I suggest with duh-like emphasis.
“You’re all wrong,” says Sigourney.
We leer at her.
“It’s a square hunk of metal.” She pauses as we make faces. “And formerly a Toyota.”
Of course, none of us knows what make it really is. We’re just far enough away that any identifying emblems of the auto-salvage yard’s latest victim are blurred. But, we give her the benefit of the doubt because whoever gives the most convincing, certain response wins. That’s our tradition, anyway.
“Score one for Siggy,” Dad says with a smile.
"Dad, can we go to the department store after this..." she asks hopefully.
I catch her at last and give her a swallowed the canary look.
"I mean, after siht?"
Dad deliberates. “Alright, but you have to keep to your section this time.”
He’s of course referring to our other weekend joy: mixing up all the sizes and hangers of clothes within our assigned territory while making it look like we are simply browsing the J.C. Penny’s. Sundays are the best.
The dingy yellow crane swoops down for another totaled vehicle to drop it into the compactor. The multi-colored jumble of stacked cubes against the gray earth, asphalt, and sky is an urban Cezanne. Life is, for a brief moment, perfect.
Reader Reviews for
"A Normal Family"
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|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|Fine writing. Would make a great reality show. Kind of, “All in the Family,” on steroids. I certainly hope it isn't autobiographical.
|Reviewed by Jerry Bolton
|Normal is as normal doesn't jump from the second story room and somersault onto the lawn without breaking form. That is cool, not normal. I found the ritual of counting the daily boxes of pasta disturbing, rather than normal, but then normal to me might be off the friggin' wall to others. Besides, I haven't decided if normal is the family name or just something they are stuck with and don't care. I'm sitting here drinking cheap California burgundy and that is a normal occurrence in The Hovel. I'm watching these people and each and every one of them probably need to be incarcerated, especially the mom. Course I have a thing against moms to start with. Batman is a hero. No matter how the modern Follywood tries to make him out, he is a hero and does not have "dark" sides and he doesn't have things that he must take pills for, Batman is a hero. These normal people started in on my childhood hero and I'll just not have that.
J.C. Penny will never be the same.
|Reviewed by Odin Roark
|Twisted pathos and a good laugh. Unity of opposites at its best. As you adroitly dramatized it, “A Normal Family? today is laboring with more neurosis, idiosyncratic social “tics? and OCD than a whole community would have experienced not too many years ago. Although you took me into a sort of Pinter-land of arresting ills common to more than usually admit it, I, for one, couldn’t help but find some pleasant identity…enough so to feel rather normal too. I would have thought, as I got older, that I’d sink into mundane habits of comfort like the memories of my parents and grandparents suggested. But, I find everyday choices and habits are much more “out there? than I would have dreamed a few years ago, and a hell of lot more exciting. Funny, but in some respects, I feel more of a kinship with Stevie than the father. Strange indeed. Have to think about that. The truth is, your story humorously allows me to connect with my own eccentricities and actually enjoy them more. Thank you for once again sharing an excellent imagination at work...and of course, the laughs. The Royal Tennenbaums...move over. Keep up the original thinking.|