Kathy Fish ~ The Once Mighty Fergusons

One rocked him­self to sleep every night, bang­ing his head against the wall. One who’d been beat­en for clog­ging the toi­let, took to shit­ting behind the garage. The youngest one had night ter­rors. Once he dreamed he was being chased and tore through the snow in his bare feet to the neigh­bors’ and broke a win­dow with his fist. They all wet the bed. They suf­fered all the com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, these broth­ers. Chicken pox, German measles, con­junc­tivi­tis, impeti­go, foot and mouth dis­ease. Their skin raged with open sores that crust­ed over their nos­trils, the cor­ners of their mouths, behind their ears, the ten­der skin behind their knees and in the crooks of their elbows. They picked at the scabs until they bled and ran with pus.

In sum­mer they wore only cut-offs, except for Sunday mass when they were made to wear long pants and starched cot­ton shirts and suf­fo­cat­ing ties. Their moth­er pitied the oth­er moth­ers with their gag­gles of chil­dren with blotched skin, short stature, and unfor­tu­nate teeth. They sub­sist­ed on grape Kool-Aid and gov­ern­ment cheese and gov­ern­ment peanut but­ter, pud­dled with oil. And in the evenings they ate mounds of mashed pota­toes and fried chick­en and canned green beans. They hunt­ed for night crawlers, lift­ed them squirm­ing into a Folger’s can full of dirt. Fished the Shell Rock River. The old­er ones brought home girls who stood quak­ing in the door­way. One came home from col­lege with long hair and plas­tic beads around his neck. He walked around the house naked and put ice cubes in his milk. He kept pot in his dress­er draw­ers and gave some to the younger ones.

When their moth­er was bedrid­den, the younger ones brought her limp dan­de­lions in jel­ly jar vas­es. Blackbirds got into the house through the attic win­dow that nev­er closed right. They swooped through the house in a pan­ic, hurl­ing them­selves against the walls and win­dows. Mice came up from the base­ment, skit­tered under the kitchen sink, nest­ed in the clos­ets and the boys hunt­ed them and dan­gled them by their tails over the open flame of the stove. Gypsy moths ate holes in the win­ter sweaters and coats their moth­er kept in a bar­rel until the first freeze laced the grass. They warred with the oth­er fam­i­lies in the neigh­bor­hood, fir­ing rocks at each oth­er across the alley­way. They prac­ticed wrestling holds in the liv­ing room, wear­ing the car­pet thin as paper. The old­er ones hid six-packs under the porch. Nights, they took turns sit­ting in the chair next to their mother’s bed.

Sometimes they were tak­en down to the tool bench in the base­ment and were made to hold out their palms or take down their shorts. If you mess with the bull you get the horn. One began steal­ing orange traf­fic cones and he marched them from the front door through the liv­ing room and din­ing room up the steep stair­case past the play­room on the land­ing and up the attic stairs. He stole a car once and drove it five blocks and rammed into a fence but was nev­er caught. Another one stole a jock strap from a sport­ing goods store. Another one drank him­self to death. Another one broke his neck div­ing from a tree whose branch­es arched over the reser­voir. Another one played foot­ball for the Air Force Academy. His pho­to made the front page of the local news­pa­per. One night he laced up his com­bat boots and ran in the moon­light in his skivvies, keep­ing low and duck­ing behind sage brush as he’d been taught.

They wait­ed for the long, low sigh of the shift whis­tle. They wait­ed for their moth­er to give them a wedge of raw pota­to and sprin­kle it with salt. They wait­ed to see their father, cross­ing the Mullan Avenue bridge swing­ing his lunch pail. There was the time he took them to the dri­ve-in with a cool­er full of Strawberry Crush and Snickers bars and the sub­ma­rine sand­wich­es from K-mart wrapped in plas­tic. And the youngest got out and puked under the screen, under the giant Annette Funicello in her biki­ni. Sometimes all it took was to take them down into the base­ment and stand them before his tool bench. Now there are only four in their tribe. They have gone sil­ver-haired and pot-bel­lied and wist­ful. Remember the sound of Mom’s radio in the morn­ings? Remember sleep­ing out­side in the rain? Remember the Shell Rock River so thick with wall­eye you could walk on it? Remember? Once he bought them all used bikes in red and black and green. Big ugly Schwinns, steel-framed and stur­dy as tanks, and they rode them all the way to Janesville and back. Once they made a plan to run away for­ev­er. Once their father spread his hands and said alone, each of you is only a fin­ger, but togeth­er you make a fist.

~

Kathy Fish teach­es for the Mile High MFA pro­gram at Regis University. She has pub­lished four col­lec­tions of short fic­tion: a chap­book in the Rose Metal Press col­lec­tive, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008); Wild Life (Matter Press, 2011); Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub, 2012); and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (Unknown Press, 2015). Her sto­ry, “Strong Tongue,” was cho­sen by Amy Hempel for inclu­sion in Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books). She blogs at Kathy Fish.