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Family Life

Photo by Marjory Collins (1912-1985) taken in New York, 1942. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Photo by Marjory Collins (1912-1985) taken in New York, 1942. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

They all gather together over dinner. Eat as much as possible, as fast as possible. The youngest, the baby sister, doesn’t eat as fast as the father and the two brothers, no one does, except for maybe some forms of wildlife. She misses out on seconds, on snacks, on Yodels; she was saving that one, she didn’t want it yet, and now she won’t ever get it. One of many things none of them will ever get.

The older son loves spaghetti and meatballs, can eat sickening amounts of it. The mother makes a pound for him, a pound for the rest of them. This makes the middle son hate spaghetti even though he likes it and he complains to the mother that they have it all the time. He starts to hate the wormy pasta almost as much as he hates green beans and the smell of Cheerios, two foods his brother likes. The only two foods the middle son dislikes. He pukes up the red strands one day, not quite digested, and leaves them to bake under the sun in a gravelly gray supermarket parking lot.

The father is done eating first and quickly starts clearing the table, the one job around the house he does. The two sons take turns setting the table and the father cleans it well before the others are finished eating. Everyone holds on to the food and drinks and glasses and plates they still want, or else the things will be gone. The baby sister sits there long after everyone else is finished and sometimes the middle son stays with her.

The father goes into the living room, sits on the couch. The TV goes on loudly. He is charge of what they watch. It’s still early, they eat as soon as the father gets home and changes out of his clothes, so prime time is still a ways away. The father watches reruns of Quincy, of Dragnet, every night—shows he rushes to, shows he sits on the couch for, not really even watching, newspaper in front of him or hands down his pants, legs flipping while he stares off into space.

The mother sits there too, or calls one of her relatives from the kitchen, so she too can see the TV. If she’s not on the phone, she occasionally says how stupid the show is. This annoys the father; he takes it personally. He takes everything personally. Whatever the father says, everyone always automatically disagrees with, without bothering to think of it. The father is always wrong. The mother has taught everyone that very well.

This goes on night after night, week after week, year after year. Every three years, the father changes jobs and the family moves. Every few days or so, the father comes home in a bad mood or has a headache and things are even quieter. Only the older son is stubborn enough to speak to the father then.

Everyone hates each other, but no one hates the baby sister. Except the father, he seems to hate her too, teases her and starts fights with her. She is not as quick witted as the others, she is not sarcastic like the mother and doesn’t point out how stupid the father is. She just gets mad and upset and storms out of the room. She cries. She says she hates him. The father is bewildered. He doesn’t understand what the baby sister’s problem is. Doesn’t know why everyone picks on him. He says this, says no one listens to him. He is right. No one does.

When the baby sister gets married, the family gets together again. They go out to dinner. They play board games while the father watches TV. They play Taboo. The older brother gulps beer and yells at his wife when she can’t get any clues.

The older son has a daughter. The granddaughter. She watches tapes of Winnie the Pooh, of Mickey Mouse. Everything stops when the tapes are on, her body limp, eyes focused as they pick her up and put her in front of food. She cries, has a fit when it’s turned off. She can recite the lines. She’s very smart. The older brother’s wife, her mother, is nervous. She’s afraid of the dog. She’s afraid to leave the granddaughter with the rest of the family. When she realizes her daughter is not by her side, she panics. She asks where the child is. The middle son asks if she’s checked the bottom of the pool. Nobody thinks it’s funny.

The older son and the baby sister’s new husband drink tequila at the wedding, lots of it. They spin the bride and groom on chairs. The baby sister doesn’t feel so good. She doesn’t want the DJ to stay overtime. She goes up to her room. Her husband needs to get out of his tuxedo so it can be returned. He’s very drunk. He goes in the glass elevator, the one the bride came down in, to the middle son’s room, to change. The middle son and a friend of the new husband undress him. They want to put him in the glass elevator in his underwear, but don’t. The baby sister is in her room and feels ill. She throws up. Her husband, still in the middle son’s room, can’t move. He throws up. The middle son puts a wet cloth on the new husband’s head and goes down to the bar. The baby sister doesn’t care. She is not feeling well either.

The next morning everyone laughs about it. The new husband and the baby sister are going on a plane, then a cruise. The baby sister is pissed, because the new husband is hung over, pukes in the fake bushes in the hotel atrium after breakfast, near where they were married. They pack and they are off.

The middle son goes back to the parents’ house, where the older son and his family also stays. Nobody really wants to talk to each other. The granddaughter holds the TV captive, watching video after video. The father roams the too large house, nothing to focus on, nothing to say to anyone.

They are saved later in the day when more relatives come to see the granddaughter. They play with her. The father regains possession of the TV and he stares at it, surrounded by the mother’s aunts and uncles and cousins. They speak Spanish. The father doesn’t understand Spanish. That doesn’t matter, if they spoke English he still wouldn’t understand. He never understands why people have to talk about things all the time.

The relatives eventually leave. The mother and father go to sleep. The granddaughter sleeps. All that’s left are the older son, his wife and the middle son. The middle son sleeps in the living room, where the TV is. The granddaughter gets one room, the older son and his wife the other. The older son has rented a movie, a bad movie, starring Barbara Streisand. He and his wife watch while the middle son tries to read. The middle son is sleepy. He is angry. He hates the movie. He hates Barbara Streisand. He hates the older brother. All he wants to do is sleep. All he wants to do is punch the older brother in the head. He wants to beat him up in front of his wife. Make him cry out, beg the middle son to stop. Instead, the middle son gets up, goes to the kitchen and takes out the leftovers. He wants to eat until he nearly explodes.

The leftovers are all wrapped in Saran Wrap. The middle son spreads them all out on the breakfast bar. The TV is still blaring. He opens up everything, takes out chicken parts, rice, beans, sandwiches and just starts eating. The older son comes in, picks up a chicken breast, holds it in his mouth and carries another one in his hand back into the living room. The middle son hopes the older son chokes to death. He knows he won’t. None of the horrible things he wishes for ever happen.

The middle son eats until he has to unbutton the top button of his jeans. He wants to crawl into bed, but he doesn’t have a bed. He has a sofa, a sofa that the older son wipes the chicken grease from his hands onto.

The movie is almost over, but the middle son can’t take it. He asks the older son and the wife to leave, tells them he needs to go to sleep. They don’t leave. The movie is almost over, they say. The middle son curls his fist in a ball. The older son is surprised when the punch lands right on his throat. The usually nervous wife gets more nervous. In a voice raspy from the punch, the older son tells the middle son he’s crazy. The middle son says nothing, just stares back at the older son, arms at his side, fists clenched. He wants the older son to try to retaliate.

The older son has a way of punching the middle son, right in the center of the back. It makes a loud hollow thudding sound. The older son loves that sound. He doesn’t feel one way or another about the sound of crying that always follows, but he could listen to the punching sound over and over again. Usually he only gets to hear it once or twice at a time. One or two good solid punches.

The best time to do this is when the father isn’t home. The father hits hard too. He is strong and if he is not in a good mood or of he gets woken up for any reason, he forgets how big he is. The mother stands nearby, watching, arms folded. Later, she tells the middle son how wrong the father is. Everyone knows that, even the father. The older son has all kinds of tricks to get to hear that thud. They all involve getting the middle son angry enough to take a swing. The older son always sees it coming and easily turns the middle son around. The older son punches and hears the sound. The baby sister cries when she sees this. She doesn’t want any part of this at all. The mother wonders how this became her life. She doesn’t know why the middle son gets a baseball bat one day and threatens the older son.

That night, as soon as dinner is over the TV goes on. The middle son goes to the baby sister’s room. She wants to play a game. She wants to play with her dolls. She wants to play Candyland. The middle son does whatever she wants. She’s the baby. The father comes by the room and stands in the doorway and watches. He doesn’t understand why they don’t come out to the living room. He doesn’t understand why the middle son would want to play Candyland. He goes back to the TV show. He doesn’t understand it. The baby sister goes to sleep. The middle son goes back to the living room. He sits next to the father, rests his head against him. The father absentmindedly scratches the middle son’s head, almost like a dog. The middle son likes the scritch scritch scritch sound. He likes the way the father’s hand smells, sweaty, meaty.

The father gets up to go to bed. His pants are practically falling down, pushed by his overhanging belly. The father holds on to them with one hand so he doesn’t lose them.

In the morning, the older son tells the mother that the middle son is crazy. He shows her the mark on his throat. The wife stands by his side. The middle son watches the granddaughter watching TV. He chases the dog around the living room. The dog chases the middle son. The wife sees the dog running near the granddaughter. She is nervous. She opens the sliding glass door to the backyard. She yells at the dog, afraid it will step on or bite the granddaughter. The dog stops playing but just stares at the wife. She grabs the dog’s rear quarter. The middle son says nothing. He knows what is about to happen. The dog turns and bites the wife. The skin is broken. She is bleeding. The mother comes in. She yells at the dog. The dog hangs her head. The mother whacks the dog and drags the dog outside by the collar and slams the door shut. The dog puts her nose against the glass and lies down, looking in from outside and whimpering. She knows she has been bad. The older son says he’d put the dog to sleep if it were his. The mother and wife and older son get in the car to take the wife to the doctor. The middle son lets the dog back in, goes to the cabinet and gives her a treat.

Whenever the family goes to a restaurant, the middle son throws up. It might happen as soon as he gets there. It might happen right when the food comes. It might happen just as he’s finishing the last bite. It might happens as they are all leaving the house. Every time the family is going to go to a restaurant, they know one thing: the middle son will throw up. They pretend they don’t know it will happen. They all get ready, wash up, put on their shoes. If the middle son knows in advance they will go out to eat that night, he doesn’t eat all day. He doesn’t want to have anything in his stomach to throw up. If he finds out at the last minute that the family is going to a restaurant, he is sure he will vomit. Sometimes he pretends that he is really tired and gets into bed and says he doesn’t want to go. It doesn’t matter. He always has to go anyway.

He throws up at the table. He throws up in the bathroom. He throws up waiting on line to be seated. It could be anywhere. The father doesn’t understand why. The mother pretends she understands, but she doesn’t. The older son doesn’t try to understand. He just wants to have chicken parmigiana and spaghetti without someone throwing up. He tells the middle son that he ruins everything for everyone.

The middle son doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He just knows something is. He doesn’t understand why the family always makes him go out to eat. He likes restaurants. He doesn’t want to throw up.

The baby sister doesn’t seem to notice, but she does. In a few years, after the middle son goes off to college, she catches it. She throws up every time the family goes to a restaurant. The father doesn’t understand. The baby sister doesn’t want to go to school. She runs off into the backyard one morning, into the small woods behind the house. The father runs out after her, still in his underwear. He yells and screams. The middle son hears about this at college. He feels bad. He can’t help her. He doesn’t throw up in restaurants anymore. Once in a while he throws up when he goes out with friends to a bar. But he knows when it’s coming and knows how to hide it.

The father has large red pustules on his back and shoulders. The mother squeezes them. The children watch. It’s painful. The father hates doctors. He refuses to go to them under any circumstance. He has an iron clad stomach and can eat anything without getting sick. The mother has a sensitive stomach. She often doesn’t feel well. She’s in bed a lot. The older son breaks his bones. He falls down the stairs and breaks his arm. He breaks his clavicle playing football. He breaks his wrist running into a car on his bike. The middle son and the baby sister inherit the mother’s stomach.

The middle son’s face is covered in acne. Large oily pimples mask his face. The family ignores it until the mother finally takes him to a doctor. The doctor shines a bright light into the middle son’s face. He takes a metal instrument and jabs it into the middle son’s face. The baby sister and mother watch. The baby sister thinks it’s kind of funny, the blood spurting, the brother’s clenched fist, the way he holds onto the side of the exam table, white paper crinkling under his sweaty hands. His face is bloody. He doesn’t go back, doesn’t get better.

The father is fat. He puts his hand down his pants when he watches TV. He sits and he stares and his hand moves around under his jeans. His legs flap open and closed. The middle son walks into the older son’s room. He doesn’t knock. The older son’s pants are down, Three’s Company on his TV. He looks very surprised to be caught stroking himself. The middle son closes the door quickly and leaves. The middle son comes into his underwear when he jerks off. He throws them into the laundry basket. The mother does the family’s wash. The baby sister lies on the couch, hands tucked underneath her. She moves her butt up and down. If asked what she’s doing, she’ll say, “Exercising.”

Soon after the baby sister’s wedding, the father’s company is sold. The father gets laid off. He gets a year’s salary. All the children are jealous. They’d kill for a year off with pay. The mother works. She has gone back to school and gotten a degree in family studies. She helps teach others how to be parents.

The father is miserable. He doesn’t go out. He has no friends. He mows the lawn and cleans the pool. He looks on the internet for jobs. He goes on interviews for jobs he doesn’t want and won’t get. He thinks about becoming a real estate agent. He thinks about working at Wal-Mart. A year passes and still no job. He will never get one.

The older brother lives far away, with his nervous wife and the granddaughter. The older son calls the father and mother every Sunday. He tells them what the granddaughter did and said. He tells them what stocks he bought over the internet. The baby sister and the new husband live near the mother and father. The baby sister calls the mother everyday. They talk about their jobs, their houses, their illnesses, what they are cooking. They see each other often. They go out to dinner together. Then they all go back to their nice houses. The baby sister gets a water softener, a hammock, a couch and a bedroom set from Rooms To Go. It all looks very nice.

The middle son lives far away. He doesn’t have a wife. The middle son calls the father and mother about once a month. They talk about the weather, their jobs, sports. The middle son gets off the phone as quickly as he can. He wants to forget that he has a family. He is happy that there will be no more weddings.

Aaron Zimmerman is the author of By The Time You Finish This Book You Might Be Dead (Spuyten Duyvil 2003). He is the founder and executive director of the NY Writers Coalition. He lives in Brooklyn.


Aaron Zimmerman

Zimmerman is editor and contributing writer for


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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