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You Save What You Can MAG
Tiny is in Daddy‘s basement and the wind is up, he can hear it. What he perhaps dislikes most about the basement is that there‘s nowhere to sit. If he‘s real good at balancing, he can perch on one of the multicolored gas cartons in the back, but the last time Tiny did that he really Got It. And if he so much as leans on the great steel shelves in the front, Daddy gives him that slack-jowled look that just screams he‘ll Get It if he doesn‘t move sharpish.
Tiny can sit cross-legged on the floor, but the floor‘s concrete with pale-gray glossy paint, and he has to be careful not to let skin peek out over his socks or he‘ll get a zap of cold.
Daddy is bouncing from floor to shelf with cans of soup. He bends at the knees, not the back, and it‘s a real grievance to the seat of his pants.
“Well, you‘re being a great help, you know that?” Daddy mutters. “The minute you grow to Phil‘s height, you‘re gonna help me stack.”
Daddy‘s rear is several feet in front of Tiny and Tiny finds it quietly hilarious how it alternately protrudes and shrinks into the fabric.
Daddy places the last few cans on the shelf and steps back to admire his platoon. They are aligned with precision, each green-lettered crest staring forward, each can full of enduring tomato slush.
Tiny blinks back at them, at either side of his father‘s porcine head, then at the head itself. It is striped with freckle-spattered reflections of the fluorescent lights above. Daddy‘s back view is that of a sportsman laid waste to by retirement. Tiny can see Daddy‘s barrel chest and some of his melting pectorals.
The lights are killed in the basement as Tiny and Daddy proceed upstairs. Tiny has to lean back into the darkness as he reaches for the door handle. He tries to forget the glaring soup cans, the rows of pickled onions floating and conspiring in murky green space.
Upstairs in the tungsten-orange kitchen, Mom is cooking meat and vegetables from various tins. Mom cooks and never eats. Both parents begin a feebly disguised conference as Tiny sits, concave in a gargantuan chair. He can see a five-foot column of action from here. He sees Daddy‘s jowls, hanging like sacks, his eyelids like batter. He is breathing and rubbing his face. Mom crosses occasionally, hunched and trotting in broad heels between sink and stove. When her eyes appear, they glitter. The look on Daddy‘s face is halfway between sympathy and severe discomfort.
The weather program is on but the volume is low.
She‘s been crying and cooking for eight days, Mom has, making Tiny afraid that she really does put blood, sweat and tears into his meals, and maybe has all along, and he thinks adults should tell kids when they‘re just saying something and when they really mean it. She cries and cooks and serves and seems to find the ladle too heavy when slopping on gravy. Before bed each night she steps through the house and clicks off the heating, the lights, the muted television, and always sits for a moment, remote control in hand, squeezing it and gazing and thinking.
It has also been eight days since Daddy and Tiny and Phil went to hoard.
The air was still, the weather unremarkable. Tiny recalls little but the sky‘s color, the color of old underwear before it‘s transferred to the dryer. And he recalls Phil in the back seat beside him. His eyes and mind were somewhere else. It hadn‘t seemed odd. Phil normally looked distracted. His nut-brown bangs were all mashed and splayed against the adjacent window. He smiled a little, played with the zipper on a satchel.
Daddy stopped the van. Sliding off the seat and onto the ground was always a little scary for Tiny. It was a big van. On these days Tiny would go stand in his little sphere of space on the asphalt, watching. He was the puppy, cocked-headed, observing the brittle-boned sheepdog at work. Tiny crossed his arms and eyes in marked concentration. He watched Phil‘s fingers loop through each carton‘s handle, listened to the dull balloon-like sound of the vessels bumping into each other. He watched his brother place the stout cartons one by one behind the van, perfectly parallel; pink, blue and green.
Phil was the pro. Phil was the poker-faced veteran who never looked up from the task. Daddy was always the one who seemed too wired, leaning smiling against the van‘s doors with his pupils swooping about. The business had been easier since the self-service was introduced, but Daddy was still cautious.
Tiny was still watching, palm on elbow.
Phil pinched the gas pump‘s nozzle from its cradle and eased it into the first carton. All very familiar to him, the trundling sounds of pouring gas, the stench - the horrid heavy smell that wandered through your windpipe with hooks and wrenched at your lungs. He leaned over, never coughed, his bangs swaying to the wind‘s fancy. He removed the nozzle‘s dripping mouth and screwed a cap onto the carton, always with gusto with that one extra screw after you‘re sure it‘s tight enough. Just to be safe. Tiny would rush in at this point, Daddy having instructed him to lug the carton back into the van. The liquid rumbled in its container with dark threats.
Then the other cartons, Tiny regarding Phil‘s batless eyelashes, the elegant dip of nozzle into carton. You knew he‘d be a great farmer if he should turn his hand to it. His manner with the hose was so full of respect; he seemed grateful to the pump for its milk.
Daddy quickly got a hankering for something cold and carbonated and booted the kids back into the van while he walked to the nearby store, cash in fist.
Phil‘s face hovered between the headrests of the front seats, staring at that bald head of Daddy‘s. Phil was a master at pre-emptive strikes. He could see Daddy‘s beeline to the store‘s entrance, he could mentally work out speeds and fields of vision -
And he softly clicked open the door, and slipped out.
Tiny glanced up from his shoelaces and saw the warm, empty seat and the barely open door, and no Phil, no gangly knees pressed up against the seat pocket. Tiny was alone with the three illicit cartons of gas, feeling their warnings. Alone with their rumbling plastic and no Phil to protect him and Daddy swaggering back from the store, drink in hand.
Tiny caught Daddy‘s eye and threw up on the seat belt.
Now the TV is dark and Mom‘s sobs can be heard all over the house. Neither parent is visible in the band of kitchen Tiny can see. Tiny will not go to school tomorrow, he decides, once again. He will not be questioned. His mother and he will lie in their respective beds till noon, staring at the wall, feeling themselves sweat, listening to Daddy tread to and from work with keys jangling.
He would have liked to have been looked at, you know, tapped on the shoulder. He would have liked a good-bye, anything, even to see his brother in those final moments, running like hell across the road and to his supposed utopia of freedom that no policeman or empathic neighbor can seem to find.
His mother gasps again.
To maybe jump to roll down the window and then give up and spill from the van and scream for him to come back, come back now and you won‘t Get It, and nothing will come to get me, and we‘ll be brothers like always.
The meat now smells like ash in too much grease and Tiny cannot speak or move from the chair.
He would like his brother, his big brother, to stride in and scoop him up under the armpits with his strong bony hands, hold him in the air and declare this world safe - safe from glowering tin cans and thundering cartons and bumps in the night and swing him around and roughhouse and engage with those terrified eyes of his and say, “It‘s okay, I‘m here, you dummy.”
The digital clock atop the TV blinks 8 p.m. and Tiny rises, and walks, his sock-feet noiseless on the lino, and no one moves to tuck him into bed.
The room is silent and the night light casts shadows.