I quit smoking six months ago, but I haven’t been back home an hour before I’m lighting up. On the plane, I read an article about climate change that listed in excruciating detail no fewer than fifty reasons I might as well smoke. Everybody talks about the ocean rising—coastal areas such as California washing away like sandcastles in the tide—but that’s a wee speck of the problem. Dwelling on oceans rising, the author stated, is like complaining about the stench of a beast who is plotting to kill and eat you, and who possesses a myriad of tactics for doing just that. As frightening and depressing as the article was, it isn’t really why I’m sucking nicotine into my lungs. I can’t get ramped up about arming myself against a beast I can’t see, not when another beast is snorting its rank breath into my face this very minute. My family, not to boast, lays claim to a certain top echelon of dysfunction. To encapsulate: my stepbrother Rich (technically a nickname, but that’s worse, it implies his consent) happens to be marrying this weekend my ex-girlfriend Angela.
Before this newer development, my go-to anecdote about Rich had been how at the age of eight, he’d laughed so hard that snot flew out of his nose when our karate instructor said to me, then eleven, “I bet there’s an alpha in you somewhere, kid. We just may have to beat it out of you. Ha!”
Younger brothers aren’t supposed to out-compete older brothers. They’re not supposed to be taller, either, but Rich already had an inch on me the day his snot besmirched my karate uniform. Now he has seven inches, plus Angela.
This match made in hell is two and a half years in the making, and for its duration I have kept my distance from the circus that is my blended family (poison blended with dynamite, is my sister Dorcas’s joke). But no longer. For one, I’m broke. Dorcas and I both came into a little money, an inheritance from our mother, but I (foolishly? optimistically?) blew mine on culinary school. My father, who is both astute and mean, had this take: “Interesting to see the price tag on your Fine Ethical Stance.” There are other relevant factors at play: in the two-plus years since I last spent much mandatory face-time with my family, my father has gotten both very rich (having sold his dot com to Google for a fortune) and very sick, a combination that has a particular magnetic force.
“Whoa, look at your hands, Lady Macbeth,” Dorcas says, and I look. Despite my scrubbing them twice, my palms are still magenta. My contribution to this reunion family dinner is roasted beets, which I chose because Rich despises them.
Normally, I’m careful as hell with beets, handling them like I might a skunk. But the hulking, sweaty figure of Rich out the kitchen window was the far more vexing foe, so I got clumsy with the beets.
He’s been out running since I arrived. Knowing Rich, he’ll probably run all day. Four years earlier, when I brought Angela home for my father’s sixtieth birthday party, Rich talked incessantly over dinner about a 135-mile race—a combination of running, skiing, and biking—he’d just completed through the bitter cold of some strip of Minnesota.
I hate cold weather. My first, and last, trip skiing, I spent the bulk of those five days in the lodge, a mug of hot tea in my hands, while Rich in a matter of two days graduated from bunny slopes to black diamonds.
Now I hold out my cigarette to Dorcas. We’re behind the shed where our father stores various carpentry tools he hasn’t used in years. This is where we smoked as teenagers, but unlike me, Dorcas never got hooked.
Dorcas waves the cigarette away. “They make my mouth feel like a garbage bin.”
Irrationally, I feel hurt. I want the fifteen-year-old version of Dorcas, the game little sister who took what I offered, who let me arbitrate her taste.
Dorcas was only five when our mother died, so her memories of Mom are almost nonexistent. When we were kids, I functioned as a tribal elder, responsible for the History of Mom. Dorcas was forever asking questions—did she like peanut butter chocolate mousse cake? What songs did she sing? Did she smell sweet, like gardenia, or earthier, like chrysanthemums? Were her nails long or short? When I couldn’t remember, I made shit up. She envied my access to Mom, though I envied back her opalescent blankness. It made Dorcas much more capable than I of tolerating Kristen and her horrible son. Kristen wasn’t replacing anyone; she was simply filling a void. Kristen meant there was a person in the house capable of French braiding hair, seemed to be Dorcas’s take.
I’m starting to wonder whether the many times Dorcas clucked and commiserated at Rich’s awfulness was more performed than authentic. God knows Rich hoodwinked enough people—Dad, the Admissions Office at Brown, and, of course, Angela.
Now, for instance, Dorcas’s partner, in life and business, Sylvia, is busy at their shop arranging the flowers for the weekend’s nuptials.
“Only an asshole would say no,” Dorcas says when I bring up her betrayal again.
“I hope Sylvia includes at least one species that is poisonous or barbed,” I say, then immediately regret the statement. Believe it or not, I don’t hate Angela. She’s a good person. She teaches special education. She volunteers at a domestic violence shelter. And she has a thousand strange but charming habits that still make me smile in spite of myself. Like how she chops an apple by hammering in the knife with her hand. Like how she flushes the toilet before she sits down even though few western toilets’ flushes carry on long enough to mask the sound of her pee, which is the point of this ingrained habit. Angela grew up in Japan, where the sounds of urination and defecation are considered impolite. Now her pre-flush flushing has lost its usefulness, like a vestigial trait. I used to grate her about all the water she wasted.
“Yawn,” Dorcas says. My sister thinks she’s a character in a comic book. Other words in her rotation include “Gasp,” “Sigh,” and “Groan.”
She puts her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, but it is what it is, and what it is, it has been for a while now. What you need is a project, something you can throw yourself into. Frankly, this self-pity thing is getting a little old. I say that only because I love you.” She eyes my cigarette.
“Ouch,” I say, and though I mean it—Dorcas keeps stinging me today, I feel like I’m hanging out with a jellyfish—the word cracks us up. Dorcas and I both worked for Dad’s start-up one summer, and at the orientation they made all the interns watch what we have referred to ever since as “That Fucking Ouch Movie.” It was a primer for how to deal appropriately with some problematic coworker situation—some dude tells a racist joke, for instance. You look the person right in the eye, make a face (Dorcas called this the Ouch Reaction Face), and say, in this hilariously pointed way, “Ouch.” Supposedly the one word would shame the perpetrator forevermore. All summer, whenever Dad did anything cavalier or callous, Dorcas or I would say, “Ouch.” He had no idea what we were talking about—of course they didn’t make executives watch that terrible video—but it killed us both. Dorcas’s Ouch Reaction Face was a serious thing of beauty.
* * *
She’s right, though, about my needing to throw myself into a project, which is why before dinner, I find Dad in his home office so I can tell him how I recently replaced the toilet in my house with my own two hands.
He gifted me two books over the course of my life: one a book of spiritual sayings by the poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran and the other a DIY manual entitled How Things Work in Your Home (and what to do when they don’t). Up until five weeks ago, I’d opened neither.
The funny thing is that I find both books oddly compelling. I’ve never been one for poetry, but Gibran’s little one-sentence sayings are sticky. Lines like “Love knows not its depth until the hour of separation” and “Chastity of the body may be miserliness of the spirit” play in an endless loop in my head. And who knew that diagrams of the inner mechanics of toasters and dishwashers could so captivate?
In addition to replacing the toilet, I’ve taken apart a food mixer and a clock to get a look at the gears and wires. These undertakings were driven by honest-to-god fascination, but also by a certain messy obsessiveness when it comes to achieving a goal. Take quitting smoking. I couldn’t manage it by focusing only on the task at hand; I’d had to build a web of goals around that goal. I gave up alcohol and sugar, drank green smoothies, and got one of those fitness trackers. I committed to walking at least five miles a day. I even, at the recommendation of Sylvia, gave myself an enema—after nearly two hours of deliberating, which involved me yo-yoing the red bulb, like a testicle with elephantitis, toward and away from the point of entry. Judging by the onslaught, which was curiously thrilling—on par with making my first successful soufflé—I estimate that I lost five pounds.
Maybe the offshoot goals make the original goal less painful, the way that biting my hand once brought relief to my ankle when it was impaled with cactus spines. (I dug so hard into my own skin that my hand bruised). Or maybe, as Angela once theorized, it boils down to integrity, the state of being whole. It’s easier to make a dozen healthful choices in a day than it is to commit to only one (hence my smoking now). Maybe in addition to wanting to insure my inheritance I’m also legitimately trying to better understand Dad? I don’t know.
“You? Seriously? You can’t even change a light bulb,” Dad says, when I tell him about installing the toilet. Then he smiles, as if he’s made some friendly, light-hearted joke.
I stand there, trying to control what I am sure is an inadvertent Ouch Reaction Face. The man does not change. And damn, I should have warmed up to the story of the toilet, instead of leading with it. It was not, perhaps, the smoothest or most natural response to his question, “So what have you been up to, Toby?”
But it was like the first suitcase coming down the chute to the baggage carousel—I wasn’t capable of other modes of conversation until I presented it. Even while in the process of putting in the toilet, kneeling on the floor with my caulking paste, I was imagining the narrative it would enable. That toilet was three stories braided together. Look how capable I have become in the last two years, Dad. How opposite I am to “feckless” (his characterization; that adjective has adhered like a burr). Also, note how I am putting to use the tools you have bequeathed me. I actually read that DIY manual. And, finally, a variant perhaps of the first, but more spiteful: look at how self-sufficient I am! I don’t need you; I don’t even need a damn contractor. Rich isn’t the only one who is “competent.” My father wields adjectives like cannonballs.
Gather yourself, Angela used to tell me, putting her hand on the small of my back.
Dad always valued good sportsmanship. He would scold if I didn’t smile and shake someone’s hand after having my ass handed to me in a tennis match (that someone, of course, was typically Rich). So I try all those things: gathering myself, plucking up and dusting off the bristling parts. Looking him in the eye, like the actors do in the Ouch video.
And looking him in the eye is, frankly, shocking. His skin has a yellow cast. His face reminds me of a walnut shell, ridged and rippled.
“He’s not doing great,” Dorcas told me, one of her more classic understatements.
A Gibran saying come to mind: “Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
I try to imagine my father reading these words, holding them on his tongue like a palate cleanser. Gibran’s sayings seem entirely too earnest for the man who raised me.
I feel a prick of tenderness that I find alarming. If I fuss over him, treat him as fragile as he looks, he’ll have my head on a silver platter. So I pull my shoulders back, and I say, “It’s been overcast all day. Maybe we’ll finally get some much needed rain. Are there any contingency plans for the event Sunday?”
There are three active wildfires in California alone, not to mention the rest of the west. Rain would be a godsend, but don’t count on Rich or Angela seeing it that way.
He narrows his eyes. “Event? You mean your brother’s wedding?”
I wish Dorcas were here. She’d make a face, and I’d have to muster every bit of restraint I have to resist laughing. But Dorcas is probably on the phone with Sylvia, telling her that dinner is starting soon—leave the flowers and hurry over. Sylvia is notoriously late to everything. She’s the absent minded artist type, the opposite of Dad, which is surely one of the reasons Dorcas fell in love with her.
It’s just me and Dad, though. There’s nobody to help me here. So I say, “Right. That event.”
I think of this guy Shep I knew in culinary school. He had a huge knot on his forearm where his dog, a pit bull, had taken a bite out of him. His arm had healed similarly to the way a tree does—by sealing the injury beneath a tough armor. It pained him sometimes. He’d stop in the middle of chopping or stirring and shake his arm out. The crazy thing was that Shep hadn’t gotten rid of the dog after that. When I said that I would have had that dog put down, Shep laughed. He said, “Man, we all get bitten a time or two by those we love. It sounds like a deal breaker until it happens to you. Then it’s just life.”
* * *
When I decided to quit smoking, I read a lot of articles about how to do it. The one that helped the most advised breaking every goal down into mini goals, or baby steps. Think the way a chef thinks, the author had written, and immediately I’d understood. You have to understand well in advance what you want to create, and everything required to make it—the ingredients, the equipment, the timing, the order of operations—and then you build the dish one small step at a time. Preparation is everything. Fail to ensure you have the spices you need before you begin or neglect to mince the garlic until it’s overdue to sizzle, and your creation is tarnished, if not ruined.
This is what I think about as I make my way to the dinner table, which is decorated lavishly in typical Kristen style. She’s even laid out place-cards, shaped like shells. Kristen is sitting at Dad’s right, instead of her usual spot at the foot of the table. She’s broken her scrupulous seating arrangement rules (boy-girl; couples separated). It’s another sign, I’m afraid, that Dad is in seriously bad shape.
Rich is at the foot, and Angela is on his left. She brushes something invisible off his sleeve.
“Don’t let him bait you,” Dorcas warned me. “Don’t get sucked into one of your stupid arguments about semantics.”
Semantics, hardly. What Dorcas is referring to is my last face-to-face with Rich. “Angela and I were taking a break!” I shouted. I had gotten as close as I could to his face, which, given Rich’s Brobdingnagian proportions, involved spitting into his thick, red neck. “‘Taking a break,’ you asshole, is not the same as ‘breaking up’! Pretty relevant distinction between ‘break’ as a direct object and ‘break’ as a verb with a preposition fucking attached!”
“Word-picker,” Angela called me, more than once. Her English was perfect—her father was American—but every so often, she’d use a word oddly, and she took offense when I pointed it out. Why was I always editing her? I was too critical, she claimed. Why did I care whether she wasted water? (Well, California was in the middle of a severe drought—but mentioning that fact just pissed her off all the more). Of course I defended myself: wasn’t calling me critical hypocritical, since what was Angela doing but criticizing me? So we’d get caught in some argumentative loop, like the picture of the cereal box on the cereal box on the cereal box, ad infinitum—a diminishing hall of mirrors.
Not tonight, though. I will “sit at the table with them like a person in a dream,” as Mrs. Ramsay thinks in To the Lighthouse. I will not notice that the clouds have dissipated suddenly as though they’ve been wiped away with a sponge; or that the bread on the table undoubtedly comes from Rollin In Dough, to which I introduced Angela—the best bread she ever ate, she said, rising naked from bed to rip off another hunk of the Pain au Levain. I won’t notice how lovely Angela is in that black silk dress, or how she’s looking at me, waiting for me to return her gaze.
“It’s so good to see you, Toby,” she says, smiling.
I feel Dad’s and Kristen’s eyes on me.
Rich looks up from his phone. His eyeballs are bulged, the way they get when he’s angry or stressed. He was scrolling the screen a bit too frantically to be believed. He feels uncomfortable, too, I think. But then he says, “Yeah. Good to see you, Tobes,” knowing how much I despise that nickname.
This dinner is one step. Focus on completing the step. Onion? Check. Cutting board? Check. Chopping knife? Check. Now chop.
“Likewise,” I say, looking at Angela only. I take a big drink of my wine.
Mom always said that silence is the best weapon. When a boy at school had given me a hard time—this was before Rich came along, of course—she suggested I stare him down without saying a word. It unnerves people.
So I make myself look at Rich. I say to myself, or to Rich rather, Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. Emphasis on the pain part.
But Rich doesn’t seem to see me. He looks back down at his phone.
“Are you all praying or something? Pre-dinner group meditation?” Dorcas. She and Sylvia rush in and take their places on either side of me.
Sylvia is in her paint-splattered dungarees. Scroll through photographs of family gatherings, and eight times out of ten, this is what Sylvia’s wearing. Meanwhile, across from her, Kristen’s neck is corseted by a strand of black pearls.
“Hilarious,” says Dad. Though his voice is stern, he can’t quite conceal a smile. Dorcas amuses him. Even when he calls her a smart ass, he does so with pride. When Dorcas was barely seven years old, she replaced all his cigarettes with rolled up pieces of paper inscribed with dire pictures—skulls and bones, et cetera—and though he gave her a dressing down about messing with his things, later I heard him laughing with Kristen. “Look at this drawing of my black lungs. The kid is clever.” Even his disappointment in Dorcas shows love. Why is such a talented, smart woman a damn florist? There’s something flattering about not living up to his expectations, as opposed to the disappointment I generate for being so predictably inadequate.
Rich looks up again. “Sorry. The photographer texted me that he just had to evacuate his house because of that fire. He’s canceling.”
“And my parents’ flight is delayed,” Angela adds. “C’est la vie.”
Kristen looks more worried than either of them, though. “Maybe we can call that woman who did the photos for your company website,” she says to Dad.
“I just watched you take a hundred photos of this table before anyone even sat down,” he says.
“There will be plenty of photos.”
“I’m not a professional,” she says.
“Photos are overrated anyhow,” Sylvia says. “Better to live in the moment.”
Kristen looks stung, but then Dad puts his hand on hers. “Relax,” he says. He has always been kind to her, gentle.
Angela says, “I like that.” She leans over and kisses Rich’s cheek. As his face softens, I feel my body tighten. I realize that beneath the table, I’m vigorously shaking my foot, as though it’s a motor I’m waiting to power up and jet me out of here.
Kristen hands Dad a plastic box, and he tips out a handful of pills. He lines up nine in three rows, a tic tac toe grid, then swallows them three at a time. It’s neat and efficient: it’s as if he’s doing lines of coke. He looks up and grimaces. I don’t know if it’s because the pills taste bad, or because we’re all staring at him. Acknowledging his audience, he holds up his half empty water glass in an ironic toast.
I think of my most humbling defeat—next to the impending wedding, that is. I picture myself at seventeen strolling to the tennis net to shake fourteen-year-old Rich’s hand after he won every game of both sets. Dad was there. Also, Rich’s girlfriend. She was a year and a half older than him. Susan King. She wore knee-high red boots with short skirts. She was one of the first girls in school to get a tattoo—a daisy tramp stamp that often peeked above the waist of those skirts. My best friend Kyle was wild with jealousy. I pretended that she was only OK, but of course I jacked off thinking about her, despite how much it shamed me to lust after my younger step-brother’s girlfriend. The excruciation of that particular tennis defeat was multiplied tenfold with Susan there cheering, “Kick his little butt, Babe!,” the little butt in question being mine.
* * *
“Jesus, Dorcas. I thought the transplant was supposed to help.” We’re behind the shed again.
Dorcas sighs. “Fuck it, give me one of those, and pay attention this time.” I pass her a cigarette, and she takes a deep drag. “It’s all about trying to get his drug cocktail right—what combination of pills will suppress his immune system so his body doesn’t reject the donor liver but not flatten it so absolutely that he dies. His body will never stop fighting the alien organ. He’s gone into rejection twice. And I’m afraid he’s close again—do you see how jaundiced he is?”
“Do I see? He looks like Bert on Sesame Street.”
Dorcas hiccup-laughs, then says, “Ouch.”
My pack is half empty; it’s not even fully dark.
Men are twice as likely to develop liver cancer as women, Dorcas continues. The average age for onset is sixty-three. It’s unclear whether, or to what extent, the cancer is genetic. One of the risk factors is tobacco use.
We smoke in silence.
“It’s why they moved up the wedding,” Dorcas says, after a minute.
“Do you remember all those orphan books you loved when we were kids?” I say. “Anne of Green Gables? You read that one over and over again. It was on spin cycle.”
She was too young to remember Mom dying, but I was seven, and I remember all of it, in high definition: sitting on her bed, not too close because she would wince if anyone touched her. “It’s like Mom is the opposite of Superman,” Dad explained. Her nerves had gone haywire; the slightest stimulation burned. We would blow each other air kisses, like socialites.
I tell Dorcas now how when Mom was dying, I’d imagined her body speckled with tiny, invisible bites. Because I’d overheard Mom say to Dad once, “You’re always picking on me. Nibbling at me like I’m a giant chocolate bunny you’re eating to death—slowly, trying to make the enjoyment last.”
Dorcas laughs, then stops. “You seriously thought Dad killed her?”
“Kind of. Yeah,” I say. “I mean I also believed that Kyle’s dad was Santa Claus because Kyle had caught him putting presents beneath their tree. We thought his dad traveled the world in a single night and that he was like six hundred years old despite having a full head of hair and a couple of young kids. What we couldn’t figure out was why he didn’t live in the North Pole and where the hell he kept the reindeer and all those presents.”
“Snort,” says Dorcas.
* * *
Kristen is crying. “This can’t be happening right now!” she says.
My first thought is that Dad is passed out on the floor or convulsing or whatever the hell a body does when it’s rejected a liver transplant. The way she says, “right now,” as though Dad dying is another stain on Rich’s big weekend, makes me wince.
But when Dorcas and I run to the kitchen, Dad is sitting at the table, looking no worse off than he did at dinner—a strange solace.
Water on the floor is the source of Kristen’s distress. It’s pooled in front of the kitchen sink cabinet, which is open, exposing a dripping pipe.
Dad says, “It’s just a leak. We’ll fix it.”
“We?” Kristen says.
Before Dad responds, I squat down to take a look. I say, “Where’s your pipe wrench, Dad?”
“Whoa, Jesus,” Dorcas says.
“Carpenter. Handyman. Same difference.”
Rich and Angela appear. I left the dinner table so quickly earlier that I didn’t see Angela stand, didn’t notice that she’s wearing heels. She rarely wore them when we were together. I complained when she did. They only make me a smidgen taller than you, she’d say. Who cares? But I did. I cared. It seems so stupid now, like being at the beach and complaining about sand between your toes.
“I’m calling a plumber,” Rich says. He pulls his phone out of his pocket.
Angela looks like she’s about to cry. She doesn’t have that chill, c’est la vie face anymore. When we were together, her composure under duress drove me nuts. In the same way that I didn’t want Angela to wear heels because it made me small, her sanity made me feel like a lunatic. And like a lunatic, I didn’t appreciate it. I called her “clueless” and “obtuse”—I flung my own flame-thrower adjectives. I felt a sick relief, back in the day, seeing her finally lose her cool. Angela knew it, too: “You win,” she’d told me once, tears tracking down her face, like she herself had sprung a leak.
“I’ve got it,” I say now. “I can fix it.”
Rich punches buttons on his phone.
Dad says, “Put the phone away. Toby can fix a tiny leak.”
Dorcas looks from me to Dad and back again. Her expression is a variation on the Ouch Reaction Face, only if she were to speak, she’d probably say something like “Holy fucking mother of god, did Dad just compliment you?”
And I would telepath back, “But did you hear how he had to modify it with ‘tiny’?”
I try to picture the entirety of the plumbing in the house—cold water pipes, hot water pipes, drain pipes, vent pipes. Plumbing diagrams look remarkably similar to diagrams of the cardiovascular system in the human body—a network of tubes delivering fluid, a network of tubes removing fluid. Weather system diagrams look similar, too. Only in plumbing and weather system diagrams, red means hot and blue means cold, whereas in cardiovascular diagrams, red means oxygenated blood and blue means deoxygenated blood.
A house is an organism, Earth is an organism. These are more than just metaphors, I will think months later when I get the call from Kristen that Dad isn’t expected to survive the night. I will remember how my friend Kyle, who’s a physician, says that med school is just a glorified vocational school. Doctors are no different from mechanics.
For now, I consider what I’ve learned about plumbing. Sometimes a problem is local and easy to fix, such as a loose shut-off valve. Other times it’s systemic, like the pipes are made of lead, so the water is poison. The problem with the sink appears to be local, a simple matter of tightening a nut. So I turn off the water to the pipes, and I pick up Dad’s wrench.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, Threadcount, TriQuarte
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals.