My brother arrives from Chicago with a mustache and a toothache. From a reclined position on our living room couch, he enumerates the benefits of being able to walk to the grocery store, the bar, library, the doctor, the train—
“I lived in Rogers Park for ten years,” I tell him. “Please, keep your socks on.”
“And now you live in Albuquerque, so I’m reminding you,” he says.
“Remind me, why are you here?”
Socks off, my brother throws them, balled, at my head. The ball flies past my ear, lands softly on our wood floor, and slides into the kitchen like a low-hovering ghost.
My wife walks into the living room with a look on her face that I take to mean, So this is what your house was like. She is wearing face paint, two blue lines down each cheek and a series of yellow lightning bolts across her forehead. Her chin appears to have been dipped in a bowl of red. My daughter walks into the room smiling wildly, looking up at her mother as she turns the corner from the kitchen, and her face as she runs between me and my brother I take to mean, Mom looks fucking crazy!
My wife, standing in her paint, listens to my brother talk about his toothache. He looks at the ceiling as he talks to us, his arms in the air. I want to tell him the movies he’s been watching have been lying to him, but it’s unrelated.
“Why did you let him grind it down without taking an X-ray?” she asks.
“When you go to the doctor and he says he wants to give you a shot, do you ask for more proof?” he asks my wife.
“She does,” I say. And this is true, she does. I’ve never seen her accept any suggestion/idea/plan from a stranger without a series of questions, without returning the whole undertaking, whatever it may be, to first principles. My brother has never been with a woman like my wife—sexually, or otherwise. She’d make him sob realizing all he’s been missing—that is, if my brother were the type of man who realized things.
“You may just have been stressed and chewing harder than usual. Are you one-side dominant when you chew your food?” she asks him. My daughter stands, miming the act of shoveling food in her mouth and chewing. She bares her teeth like a dramatic friendly dog.
I cut in. “Everyone is one-side dominant when chewing their food, unless you are a person who readily uses the term ‘one-side dominant’ in regards to chewing food. And even those people—" my wife starts sighing and letting her eyes go cross-eyed— "and even those people familiar with one-side chewing problems, I would guess, are by far—by far—chewing on one side of their mouths.”
My wife mouths the word “fucking” followed by actually saying “All right!”
My daughter is looking back and forth between her mom and me. My brother is making the same face as my daughter. A face in retreat. My daughter burps, and then burps again, looking dazed. Her eyes are wide; her body is betraying her.
My brother says, “Right-side chewer.”
My wife is angrier than I understood ten seconds ago. Something about me shouting her down on this topic is getting to her. She shouts me down too, often. Sometimes I start days by saying, “Let's have a good day today,” like someone in a TV movie, the kind that doesn’t get made anymore. Like a stepdad in an old TV movie. But I’m not trying to be funny. I really want to put it out there from the start that no matter what happens, I promise you, I’m trying and know the day before got a little fucked.
She turns to my brother. “So, you’re stressed. You’re chomping hard. You’re growing a mustache. Out with it. What happened?”
My daughter jumps in front of her uncle and I notice her hands are both completely blue. She puts up her blue hands, “He doesn’t have to tell you! You don’t have to tell them! They’ll remember whatever you say for as long as you live!”
Alex Higley lives in Chicago with his wife and dog. His work has appeared in New World Writing, PANK, Hobart, Fanzine, The Adroit Journal and elsewhere. His debut collection, Cardinal and Other Stories, is now available from Tailwinds Press.
Illustration by Caytlin Kuszewski.