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.