Fiction by Jennifer Caloyeras
I blame the Salvation Army, but I guess it's really Mom's fault. She's the one who donated my lion costume to them in the first place. She must have thought it was from some Halloween back when we were kids. I had been hiding it in a box in the garage to keep the whole thing under wraps, but Mom threw it in the garbage bag with the rest of the donations: scratched Teflon pans, an old domino set, Mavis's miniature glass pony collection, a pair of Winchester roller skates, a bunch of musty books (like they're going to get read) and clothing. Lots of clothing, including my fucking lion costume, a.k.a. my work uniform.
I can't tell her how pissed I am because she doesn't know what I do for work. Doesn't know that I am, well at least was, the top Cuddler at the CLUB. Ranked number one for four months straight. And it was all about the costume that is now probably at some sorting facility somewhere, being evaluated and distributed to a store where it will be bought for $4.99 by some fool who smells like alcohol.
Just my fucking luck.
"I feel so good about myself today," Mom says, fox stole around her thick, dewlapped neck. The thing looks like it was road kill. She should have donated it with the rest of her shit.
I give her a fake smile. Two more months in this dump and then I’m out of here. I’ll be a high school graduate with the beginnings of a savings account, ready to face the world. If it were up to Mom, she’d have me live in this house forever. Dad has big plans for me to join the army. Not wanting me to get a job is their way of controlling my future.
Mavis, my twin sister, sits at the table with a bowl of Frosty-O's. I tell her all the sugar is bad for her acne, but she doesn’t listen. She never eats what the rest of us are having, boiled turkey omelets this morning. Dad peels the skin away from the flesh with his fork, and it comes off it one piece. The limp flap looks like it could be a cape for an action figure. Super Turkey Skin: inflates his wattle to epic proportions before clawing evildoers in a single bound! Dad passes the skin to Mom who, making her way towards the kitchen, pretends first to offer it to the fox around her neck before dropping it in her own mouth. Mavis takes sugar from the pink and white box in front of her and sprinkles it on top of the contents of her bowl, like it's snowing.
“My drawing is one of the finalists for the school t-shirt.” Mavis spoons the O’s one at a time – her mild case of O.C.D. on display.
“Math quiz today. Gonna ace it,” I say.
Dad merely nods at our offerings and stuffs egg in his mouth.
Mom is humming a tune and slow dancing with the fox down to her seat.
“Say something, my dears?”
Mavis and I look at one another. I shake my head and she murmurs, “Never mind.” Dad was never really one to offer praise. I’d tell him I raised the most money in my class for our adopt-a-family, and he would say the school should be paying me for all my hard work.
Earlier this morning, before I’d realized that Mom donated my lion suit, I tore Mavis’s room apart. Instead of the costume, there was something else hidden under her bed. Paperwork. For volunteer work in Ghana. To be an art teacher at a school for girls. She’d already filled out the application. I won’t rat her out. I want to be there when she tells our folks she's leaving and the shit hits the fan.
"So what are you two doing after school?" It’s Friday which means we don’t have to rush straight home. Dad doesn’t like us going out. It’s not like he wants us to stay home and have game night or anything like that. He lets me out if I’m doing something “respectable” like going to the library, and he allows Mavis go study with the girls once in a while. We get around his rules by combining our only two options: lying or sneaking out.
"I don't know. Maybe study group with the girls." Mavis slurps her milk, which makes Mom twitch.
"That’s nice," Dad adds. "You and the girls. How’s Lonnie doing? Her father used to work at that bank that went belly up, poor guy."
Dad’s been a refrigerator repairman his whole life. It's what his dad did . Before that, his grandfather was in the icebox business and his great-grandfather worked with dehydrators and crocks. Dad likes to lecture us about “work ethic.” Mom comes from old money that no longer exists. She was raised in some mansion with wait service. She likes to tell Dad how they had three refrigerators, one downstairs, and one upstairs and one by the pool. But Grandfather was apparently involved in some “shady business” and lost it all in “one fell swoop,” forcing the family to pack up whatever they could carry in one leather suitcase in the middle of the night and vacate the premises, the town, the entire east coast. Mom was wearing the fox the night they left.
She brings in a pile of zucchini pancakes stacked ten high. I growl at her fox stole as she lowers the plate to the table. The fox face flops uncomfortably close to mine. She never takes that thing off. She claims it's because she has poor circulation, and don't even try to sell her on scarves. She says they're porous. Mom leans down and places one finger on my sister’s shoulder and closes her eyes as she speaks.
"My little girl. All grown up. You can vote. Be your own person."
"Let's not rush into things," says Dad.
"You can make a porno," I say, encouragingly.
"Oh, Tristan. Do you have to be so vulgar all the time?”
Apparently, it’s not vulgar when Dad tells me I should be a soldier. He says it’s the only decent job prospect I have. His fridge business has been dwindling. He says the only way I can afford to go to college is if I join the army. I get the idea, but fighting isn’t my thing. I don’t feel an obligation to defend my country. I can’t walk down the school halls without getting the middle finger from someone. That’s what I’m supposed to fight for?
Dad picks at his teeth with an orange toothpick. When he finds something stuck, he makes this grotesque sucking noise and then swallows.
We reach for the syrup at the same time. I inadvertently grasp his hand, which is wrapped around the neck of the plastic bottle. His skin is cold: what you’d expect from a man who spends all day placing them in sub zero temperatures. It’s the first body contact we’ve had since I can remember. I quickly let go. He was there first.
After school, when I tell Captain Kevin my costume is no longer, he hangs his head and sighs. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
"You had a good run, Cuddler 82. I didn't want to see you go out like this."