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Authors: George Saunders

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BOOK: Pastoralia
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And I said yes we were.

But of course we’re not.

For dinner it’s beanie-wienies. For dessert it’s ice cream with freezer burn.

“What a nice day we’ve had,” Aunt Bernie says once we’ve got the babies in bed.

“Man, what an optometrist,” says Jade.

Next day is Thursday, which means a visit from Ed Anders from the Board of Health. He’s in charge of ensuring that our penises never show. Also that we don’t kiss anyone. None of us ever kisses anyone or shows his penis except Sonny Vance, who does both, because he’s saving up to buy a FaxIt franchise. As for our Penile Simulators, yes, we can show them, we can let them stick out the top of our pants, we can even periodically dampen
our tight pants with spray bottles so our Simulators really contour, but our real penises, no, those have to stay inside our hot uncomfortable oversized Simulators.

“Sorry fellas, hi fellas,” Anders says as he comes wearily in. “Please know I don’t like this any better than you do. I went to school to learn how to inspect meat, but this certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. Ha ha!”

He orders a Lindbergh Enchilada and eats it cautiously, as if it’s alive and he’s afraid of waking it. Sonny Vance is serving soup to a table of hairstylists on a bender and for a twenty shoots them a quick look at his unit.

Just then Anders glances up from his Lindbergh.

“Oh for crying out loud,” he says, and writes up a Shutdown and we all get sent home early. Which is bad. Every dollar counts. Lately I’ve been sneaking toilet paper home in my briefcase. I can fit three rolls in. By the time I get home they’re usually flat and don’t work so great on the roller but still it saves a few bucks.

I clock out and cut through the strip of forest behind FedEx. Very pretty. A raccoon scurries over a fallen oak and starts nibbling at a rusty bike. As I come out of the woods I hear a shot. At least I think it’s a shot. It could be a backfire. But no, it’s a shot, because then there’s another one, and some kids sprint across the courtyard yelling that Big Scary Dawgz rule.

I run home. Min and Jade and Aunt Bernie and the babies are huddled behind the couch. Apparently they had the babies outside when the shooting started. Troy’s walker got hit. Luckily he wasn’t in it. It’s supposed to look like a duck but now the beak’s missing.

“Man, fuck this shit!” Min shouts.

“Freak this crap you mean,” says Jade. “You want them growing up with shit-mouths like us? Crap-mouths I mean?”

“I just want them growing up, period,” says Min.

“Boo-hoo, Miss Dramatic,” says Jade.

“Fuck off, Miss Ho,” shouts Min.

“I mean it, jagoff, I’m not kidding,” shouts Jade, and punches Min in the arm.

“Girls, for crying out loud!” says Aunt Bernie. “We should be thankful. At least we got a home. And at least none of them bullets actually hit nobody.”

“No offense, Bernie?” says Min. “But you call this a freaking home?”

Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I’d move everybody up to Canada. It’s nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright-red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us the stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner. But moving to Canada takes bucks. Dad’s dead and left us nada and Ma now lives with Freddie, who doesn’t like us, plus he’s not exactly rich himself. He does phone polls. This month he’s asking divorced women how often they backslide and sleep with their exes. He gets ten bucks for every completed poll.

So not lucrative, and Canada’s a moot point.

I go out and find the beak of Troy’s duck and fix it with Elmer’s.

“Actually you know what?” says Aunt Bernie. “I think that looks even more like a real duck now. Because sometimes their beaks are cracked? I seen one like that downtown.”

“Oh my God,” says Min. “The kid’s duck gets shot in the face and she says we’re lucky.”

“Well, we are lucky,” says Bernie.

“Somebody’s beak is cracked,” says Jade.

“You know what I do if something bad happens?” Bernie says. “I don’t think about it. Don’t take it so serious. It ain’t the end of the world. That’s what I do. That’s what I always done. That’s how I got where I am.”

My feeling is, Bernie, I love you, but where are you? You work at DrugTown for minimum. You’re sixty and own nothing. You were basically a slave to your father and never had a date in your life.

“I mean, complain if you want,” she says. “But I think we’re doing pretty darn good for ourselves.”

“Oh, we’re doing great,” says Min, and pulls Troy out from behind the couch and brushes some duck shards off his sleeper.

Joysticks reopens on friday. It’s a madhouse. They’ve got the fog on. A bridge club offers me fifteen bucks to oil-wrestle Mel Turner. So I oil-wrestle Mel Turner. They offer me twenty bucks to feed them chicken
wings from my hand. So I feed them chicken wings from my hand. The afternoon flies by. Then the evening. At nine the bridge club leaves and I get a sorority. They sing intelligent nasty songs and grope my Simulator and say they’ll never be able to look their boyfriends’ meager genitalia in the eye again. Then Mr. Frendt comes over and says phone. It’s Min. She sounds crazy. Four times in a row she shrieks get home. When I tell her calm down, she hangs up. I call back and no one answers. No biggie. Min’s prone to panic. Probably one of the babies is puky. Luckily I’m on FlexTime.

“I’ll be back,” I say to Mr. Frendt.

“I look forward to it,” he says.

I jog across the marsh and through FedEx. Up on the hill there’s a light from the last remaining farm. Sometimes we take the boys to the adjacent car wash to look at the cow. Tonight however the cow is elsewhere.

At home Min and Jade are hopping up and down in front of Aunt Bernie, who’s sitting very very still at one end of the couch.

“Keep the babies out!” shrieks Min. “I don’t want them seeing something dead!”

“Shut up, man!” shrieks Jade. “Don’t call her something dead!”

She squats down and pinches Aunt Bernie’s cheek.

“Aunt Bernie?” she shrieks. “Fuck!”

“We already tried that like twice, chick!” shrieks Min. “Why are you doing that shit again? Touch her neck and see if you can feel that beating thing!”

“Shit shit shit!” shrieks Jade.

I call 911 and the paramedics come out and work hard for twenty minutes, then give up and say they’re sorry and it looks like she’s been dead most of the afternoon. The apartment’s a mess. Her money drawer’s empty and her family photos are in the bathtub.

“Not a mark on her,” says a cop.

“I suspect she died of fright,” says another. “Fright of the intruder?”

“My guess is yes,” says a paramedic.

“Oh God,” says Jade. “God, God, God.”

I sit down beside Bernie. I think: I am so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened and sorry you never had any fun in your life and sorry I wasn’t rich enough to move you somewhere safe. I remember when she was young and wore pink stretch pants and made us paper chains out of DrugTown receipts while singing “Froggie Went A-Courting.” All her life she worked hard. She never hurt anybody. And now this.

Scared to death in a crappy apartment.

Min puts the babies in the kitchen but they keep crawling out. Aunt Bernie’s in a shroud on this sort of dolly and on the couch are a bunch of forms to sign.

We call Ma and Freddie. We get their machine.

“Ma, pick up!” says Min. “Something bad happened! Ma, please freaking pick up!”

But nobody picks up.

So we leave a message.

Lobton’s funeral parlor is just a regular house on a regular street. Inside there’s a rack of brochures with titles like “Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat Larger?” Lobton looks healthy. Maybe too healthy. He’s wearing a yellow golf shirt and his biceps keep involuntarily flexing. Every now and then he touches his delts as if to confirm they’re still big as softballs.

“Such a sad thing,” he says.

“How much?” asks Jade. “I mean, like for basic. Not superfancy.”

“But not crappy either,” says Min. “Our aunt was the best.”

“What price range were you considering?” says Lobton, cracking his knuckles. We tell him and his eyebrows go up and he leads us to something that looks like a moving box.

“Prior to usage we’ll moisture-proof this with a spray lacquer,” he says. “Makes it look quite woodlike.”

“That’s all we can get?” says Jade. “Cardboard?”

“I’m actually offering you a slight break already,” he says, and does a kind of push-up against the wall. “On account of the tragic circumstances. This is Sierra Sunset. Not exactly cardboard. More of a fiberboard.”

“I don’t know,” says Min. “Seems pretty gyppy.”

“Can we think about it?” says Ma.

“Absolutely,” says Lobton. “Last time I checked this was still America.”

I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie’s spine would be. Down at the foot there’s some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B.

“No freaking way,” says Jade. “Work your whole life and end up in a Mayflower box? I doubt it.”

We’ve got zip in savings. We sit at a desk and Lobton does what he calls a Credit Calc. If we pay it out monthly for seven years we can afford the Amber Mist, which includes a double-thick balsa box and two coats of lacquer and a one-hour wake.

“But seven years, jeez,” says Ma.

“We got to get her the good one,” says Min. “She never had anything nice in her life.”

So Amber Mist it is.

We bury her at St. Leo’s, on the hill up near BastCo. Her part of the graveyard’s pretty plain. No angels, no little rock houses, no flowers, just a bunch of flat stones like parking bumpers and here and there a Styrofoam cup. Father Brian says a prayer and then one of us is supposed to talk. But what’s there to say? She never had a life. Never married, no kids, work work work. Did she ever go on a cruise? All her life it was buses. Buses buses buses. Once she went with Ma on a bus to Quigley, Kansas, to gamble and shop at an outlet mall. Someone broke into her room and stole her clothes and took a dump in her suitcase while they were at the Roy Clark show. That was it. That was the extent of her tourism. After that it was DrugTown, night
and day. After fifteen years as Cashier she got demoted to Greeter. People would ask where the cold remedies were and she’d point to some big letters on the wall that said Cold Remedies.

Freddie, Ma’s boyfriend, steps up and says he didn’t know her very long but she was an awful nice lady and left behind a lot of love, etc. etc. blah blah blah. While it’s true she didn’t do much in her life, still she was very dear to those of us who knew her and never made a stink about anything but was always content with whatever happened to her, etc. etc. blah blah blah.

Then it’s over and we’re supposed to go away.

“We gotta come out here like every week,” says Jade.

“I know I will,” says Min.

“What, like I won’t?” says Jade. “She was so freaking nice.”

“I’m sure you swear at a grave,” says Min.

“Since when is freak a swear, chick?” says Jade.

“Girls,” says Ma.

“I hope I did okay in what I said about her,” says Freddie in his full-of-crap way, smelling bad of English Navy. “Actually I sort of surprised myself.”

“Bye-bye, Aunt Bernie,” says Min.

“Bye-bye, Bern,” says Jade.

“Oh my dear sister,” says Ma.

I scrunch my eyes tight and try to picture her happy, laughing, poking me in the ribs. But all I can see is her terrified on the couch. It’s awful. Out there, somewhere, is whoever did it. Someone came in our house, scared her to death, watched her die, went through our stuff, stole her
money. Someone who’s still living, someone who right now might be having a piece of pie or running an errand or scratching his ass, someone who, if he wanted to, could drive west for three days or whatever and sit in the sun by the ocean.

We stand a few minutes with heads down and hands folded.

Afterward freddie takes us to Trabanti’s for lunch. Last year Trabanti died and three Vietnamese families went in together and bought the place, and it still serves pasta and pizza and the big oil of Trabanti is still on the wall but now from the kitchen comes this very pretty Vietnamese music and the food is somehow better.

Freddie proposes a toast. Min says remember how Bernie always called lunch dinner and dinner supper? Jade says remember how when her jaw clicked she’d say she needed oil?

“She was a excellent lady,” says Freddie.

“I already miss her so bad,” says Ma.

“I’d like to kill that fuck that killed her,” says Min.

“How about let’s don’t say fuck at lunch,” says Ma.

“It’s just a word, Ma, right?” says Min. “Like pluck is just a word? You don’t mind if I say pluck? Pluck pluck pluck?”

“Well, shit’s just a word too,” says Freddie. “But we don’t say it at lunch.”

“Same with puke,” says Ma.

“Shit puke, shit puke,” says Min.

The waiter clears his throat. Ma glares at Min.

“I love you girls’ manners,” Ma says.

“Especially at a funeral,” says Freddie.

“This ain’t a funeral,” says Min.

“The question in my mind is what you kids are gonna do now,” says Freddie. “Because I consider this whole thing a wake-up call, meaning it’s time for you to pull yourselfs up by the bootstraps like I done and get out of that dangerous craphole you’re living at.”

“Mr. Phone Poll speaks,” says Min.

“Anyways it ain’t that dangerous,” says Jade.

“A woman gets killed and it ain’t that dangerous?” says Freddie.

“All’s we need is a dead bolt and a eyehole,” says Min.

“What’s a bootstrap,” says Jade.

“It’s like a strap on a boot, you doof,” says Min.

“Plus where we gonna go?” says Min. “Can we move in with you guys?”

“I personally would love that and you know that,” says Freddie. “But who would not love that is our landlord.”

“I think what Freddie’s saying is it’s time for you girls to get jobs,” says Ma.

BOOK: Pastoralia
12.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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