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.