26 comments

Coming of Age American Fiction

Where I come from, you can’t put batteries in the smoke detectors. Mom smokes so much, it’s in the walls. It’s an everlasting presence in the air. There is no air. Not really. Just methanol and acrolein and hydrocarbons and other things that belong in cement and not in the lungs. On the kitchen table, there are playing cards. Mostly jokers. Nobody plays cards here. Nobody knows how to play cards, but everybody likes how they look splayed out next to overflowing ashtrays and tabloids stained with Diet Coke.

“Somebody give Boo Boo a piece of chicken,” my Mom will say, motioning to the small pony under the table. Word has it that Boo Boo is a dog and not a pony or a kangaroo, but Mom’s fed him so much people-food that he’s a good forty pounds heavier than any dog should be. When his ears jut out, he could be a dingo. His temperament is that of a dachshund--entitled, but ultimately lovable. He slinks under the kitchen table and the whole thing flies up a few inches sending jokers everywhere. Mom just laughs. She can’t get mad at Boo Boo. He’s the only child she has that doesn’t meet with her vitriol at least once a week.

I’m to bring over a pack of Marlboros every time I visit. A big pack. Not a regular one. The long kind with enough sticks to tar up a pothole. We’re all expected to do this. These are the offerings we carry with us if we wish to spend time in our childhood home. On Friday nights, we’re expected to bring the smokes and the jokes. Jokes from the jokers. The wild neighborhood kids who Mom took in. None of us knew our own biology until we were grown. Which ones were legally attached to Mom and which were just the recipients of her kind heart. For someone who thought nothing of taking in orphans and strays, she could cut you down with nothing more than a haiku if you proved lacking.

My disappointment.

Still dumb enough to need me.

And where are my smokes?

Each of us had our own animal at one time or another. Like fantasy characters assigned wolves or talking birds, we each had a pile of mange and fleas that we were expected to nurse back to health. Once we had, the animal would disappear from whence it came. One of my sisters had to nurse a raccoon. My older brother had to rehabilitate a one-legged squirrel. I had a half-dead dog named Cliff. I spent the better part of fourth grade rejuvenating him. When I was done, Mom took him on as her own. She poached him from me. Handed me an abandoned kitten and told me if it died on my watch, I’d never see Heaven. I’m nearly forty years-old and I still have no idea whether or not she was joking when she said it.

There’s a little tv perched on a small shelf above the stove that never gets a good signal. The tv is black and white, but every so often, a burst of color will break through the smoke. Usually it’s one of the feathers on the NBC peacock, but sometimes it’s just the blue of a Jeopardy square. Mom wins at Jeopardy every night. If she loses, it’s “Off with their heads.” The room has to be cleared out. People spill into the street. Word gets around the block.

“I don’t know if you heard, but Mom lost at Jeopardy tonight. Better leave her alone.”

Mom has a walkie talkie attached to her right hand. Mumbled code and static come over the little blocks every few minutes, but Mom only responds when it’s the voice of a man she calls Terranova. When she hears him, her entire demeanor changes. She waves away as much of the smoke as she can before she answers him as though the haze might make its way into the little holes at the top part of the talkie and choke the poor guy while the rest of us slowly develop emphysema.

“That’s a giddy-up, Terranova,” Mom barks into the block, dialing up her Southern roots to sound a little more intoxicating, “Gotta come by and see me sometime, don’t you think?”

Mom stopped seeing men after her third husband died. My dad was her second husband, but I hear he was a real piece of work. Mom says we’re allowed to get three stories about any man she’s ever been with, but after the third story, you have to talk about something else. When I asked for three stories about my father, I got the following:

  • She met him at Scoville Bowl ‘n Skate.
  • He had a tattoo on his shoulder of James Dean.
  • The night he left, there were seven separate fires set all over town. My father never seemed like an arsonist, but then again, what does an arsonist seem like?

“He did love to light my cigarettes,” Mom would say, coughing the same cough she’d had since before I was born, “He’d make me keep my Marlboro in the flame until I was scared the whole damn thing would go up in smoke.”

On the table, there was a long, clear vase with a single rose in it. I never saw anybody swap out that rose, but I also never saw it wilt. I always thought Mom needed a little beauty in her life amidst the linoleum and the grease stains on the stove top. The fridge that hummed too loud. The mothball smell coming out of the bedroom. A toaster that only burned. A freezer where the ice cubes could never quite solidify. Mom’s kitchen was like her life--hanging on as best it could. Where I come from, everybody was doing that. Learning to love the broken bits. Telling ourselves that progress meant never calling a plumber. Adjusting to dysfunction showed your merit. Who needed ice cubes? Who needed smoke detectors? Who needed dog food?

“Boo Boo doesn’t like dog food,” Mom would shout whenever anybody suggested giving the alleged canine kibble, “He has good taste. That’s because I raised him right.”

With that, she’d light up another cigarette--or somebody would do it for her. She’d let out an uninterrupted stream of vapor, and then tap on one of the jokers.

“Well,” she’d say, “We gonna play or what?”

September 19, 2022 06:40

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26 comments

N Navsky
20:02 Sep 29, 2022

Liked your story. Homey off-beat fun.

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Kevin B
16:13 Sep 30, 2022

Thank you very much.

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Marty B
06:24 Sep 29, 2022

So many of your stories have a driving plot, this one is all about character, and what a Character! My shirt smells like smoke just from reading this- and the feeling of home.

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Kevin B
17:07 Sep 29, 2022

Thank you so much, Marty. I was excited to focus more on setting and character.

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Jessica Hunt
02:22 Sep 29, 2022

You're a wonderful writer. I really enjoyed this!

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Kevin B
18:02 Sep 29, 2022

Thank you so much, Jessica!

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Ashlynn Rose
00:51 Sep 27, 2022

I want to read more :0

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Kevin B
16:09 Sep 27, 2022

Thank you, Ashlynn!

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Justine Carbery
16:54 Sep 26, 2022

Great character. Love this

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Kevin B
19:09 Sep 26, 2022

Thank you so much, Justine!

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Kelsey H
00:11 Sep 26, 2022

I love this, what a fantastic character the mother is, so well described and complex. Also I loved the haiku of her speaking to her children, that was great! It's the sort of thing I would like to read more of because the family sound so interesting and believable.

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Kevin B
07:40 Sep 26, 2022

Thank you so much, Kelsey!

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Amanda Lieser
02:31 Sep 25, 2022

Hey Kevin! So glad to see another piece of yours! I really enjoyed the way you characterized the mother in this piece. I was also intrigued with the way you used the prompts and I loved that snappy title. Parents and children are interesting because you can’t choose them-not the way you choose work, friends, or how you spend your time. It’s a very interesting concept. I hope your character sought some therapy to help deal with it all. Wonderfully written!

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Kevin B
07:41 Sep 26, 2022

Thank you. I really enjoyed (if that's the right word) inhabiting this world.

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Stevie B
15:13 Sep 24, 2022

Your work here is fascinating and entertaining as always, Kevin.

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Kevin B
00:39 Sep 25, 2022

Thank you so much, Stevie.

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Stevie B
11:42 Sep 25, 2022

Kevin, you're deservedly welcome.

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Riel Rosehill
20:01 Sep 21, 2022

So many lines I loved in here Kevin. "Just methanol and acrolein and hydrocarbons and other things that belong in cement and not in the lungs." - love this description, stating the narrator's opinion. I really enjoy when we learn about characters this way. "Like fantasy characters assigned wolves or talking birds, we each had a pile of mange and fleas that we were expected to nurse back to health." Adore the simile! I think what I enjoyed the most about this story, was how I couldn't really say, weather their life was bad, whether the mo...

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Kevin B
20:12 Sep 21, 2022

Thank you so much, Riel. This story is based on some real life experiences and writing it helped me come to terms with how much gray there is loving someone.

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Rama Shaar
18:47 Sep 21, 2022

I love Mom's character. She's awful and kind, damaged and damaging, smart and a failure of sorts. This would make a good movie!

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Kevin B
19:05 Sep 21, 2022

Thank you so much, Rama.

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AnneMarie Miles
14:16 Sep 19, 2022

A great opening line, pulled me right in. I love the detail and the voice. Stories like these that are more reminiscent and detailed than active are interesting to me, because they're hard for me to structure. But you pulled it off. I especially love the inclusion of the haiku. I was thinking of incorporating a poem into my writing this week, and it's awesome to see someone else have the same idea. Well done, thanks for sharing!

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Kevin B
16:36 Sep 19, 2022

Thank you so much, Anne Marie!

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Lily Finch
12:40 Sep 19, 2022

An interesting voice in this one. I liked the plot. It flowed nicely. The prompt wanted the story to start with a character saying, "where I come from..." but yours works too. I enjoyed reading this one! Thanks, Kevin. LF6

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Kevin B
16:36 Sep 19, 2022

Thank you, Lily. I figured since the narrator is a character it would count ;)

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Lily Finch
16:56 Sep 19, 2022

Sounds good to me. :) LF6

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