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Eat Your Family's Food
By Eric Nelson
It was sometime after 1 a.m. Outside of the veterans’ hall, red party cups and roman candle shells littered the parking lot, still full of cars and trucks. A plastic banner, reading “Happy 3rd Birthday Missy!” dangled over the doorway.
Boots crunched on the gravel parking lot. The autumn moon hung heavy over the woods alongside the interstate, the children already put to sleep, either driven home by aunts and grandmothers, or put down in the backseats of cars.
People were screaming over the music, shouting at each other inside the hall. A dog barked in the distance. The sound of a glass shattering was close. Wayne spat on the ground and unlocked the Ford pickup.
In the glove compartment was a Walter P22 and clip, amidst other bric-a-brac. He went to close the door, remembering the passenger-side door never caught the latch.
The quarter keg that had been purchased was nowhere enough beer for both families and friends of Frank and Donna, celebrating their daughter’s birthday. By 9 p.m. the beer had run out, along with the extras people had brought with them. The music had changed, as had the overall mood.
When Donna’s father Frank scratched the side of his truck against the disc jockey’s Charger backing out, even he admitted it was clear someone else would have to drive. He was shorter than most of the men present, mustachioed with wide shoulders and a left eye that wandered on its own, more so after heavy drinking. His wife Donna, a taller, slender blonde, saw it moving before most people.
The couple had married relatively young by a Baptist minister, with everyone but Donna’s older brother and parents present. Donna, barely 20 at the time, had recently lost her father to Miners’ Lung, while her mother abandoned the family years before, leaving her to be raised primarily by her brother and aunt. Frank was only a few years older and came with a fully extended family, many of them cousins whose actual genealogy was now a blur. With her settlement from the mining company and his job at the tile wholesaler, the couple was relatively comfortable compared to some. Neither had many relatives who lived past their sixties.
As a minor accident never prevented a family party from continuing, another car, also a pickup, was quickly dispatched to fetch more alcohol. Donna’s uncle Brian and cousin Wayne volunteered.
In the car Brian took a long swig from a half-pint of whiskey and offered it to his son, who shook his head as he drove them back from the liquor store. Brian hunched over the dashboard, long and lean with a permanent five o’clock shadow and a spine crooked from years of bending over an assembly line. Wayne meanwhile was obese and played the part well in 3XL shirts and basketball shorts, head shaved with a goatee. The pair looked comical next to each other, father and son that hardly looked related.
As the truck stalled to a halt, Wayne looked to see an old Camaro with out-of-state plates in their original parking spot.
“Looks like that son of a bitch is back again. When is he gonna get the hint?” asked Brian.
“Yeah, well, he’s family, still.”
“Family nothing. Dumbass brother of mine shoulda never took him in. That kid was trouble from the start.”
“Last time I heard, Jimmy was still over in Richmond County Jail,” added Wayne.
“Well, obviously not anymore.”
“Maybe Frank’ll let him stay for a few drinks. Maybe he’s come back to make amends?”
“Frank’s probably passed out by now. Donna said he’s been on one since noon. The man can’t handle his liquor.”
Which was true. It had only been a half hour since they left, but the pair returned to find Frank asleep sitting up in a folding chair next to the kitchen, mouth agape at a full snore. Donna was more energetic than ever, whispering to Jimmy, who stood in the corner. He stood several inches taller than his sister, in a crisp flannel, work pants and clean boots, his hair parted at the side and face clean-shaven. He raised his head and watched the pair walk in. His eyes had lost their dull glaze and taken on a piercing quality.
“Well, well! Look who’s back from the pokey!” yelled Brian. Wayne blushed.
“Go easy on him, Uncle Brian. He just came to say hi,” said Donna.
“Hey Uncle Brian. Good to see you,” said Jimmy.
“Hey Jimmy, when’d they let you out?” asked Wayne.
“Two weeks ago, but I’m still on parole. I’m not supposed to leave the state, but I wanted to see Missy for her birthday,” he said with a sheepish grin.
“Yeah, well Frank’s mom took her home already. Party started six hours ago,” snarled Brian.
“I got held up in traffic. Anyway, here Donna, I brought her something. It’s not much…” he held up a teddy bear with a red bow around the neck.
Donna clapped her hands together, eyes widening.
“Oh thank you, Jimmy! That’s so sweet of you. Ain't that sweet, Uncle Brian?”
“Yeah, real sweet. Where’d you steal that from?”
“I didn’t steal anything. I got a job working construction now. Donna knows a guy in Richmond who owes her a favor so she set it up for me. I came by to say thanks.”
“Frank know about this? Where is he?”
“Uncle Brian, he’s sleeping,” said Donna.
Brian had already turned, stomping around the hall looking for him.
“Wake up. Hey Frank, get up,” he said, shaking the man’s shoulders.
“Hey, come on, he’s sleeping. Leave him alone! He’s got nothing to do with this!” pleaded Donna.
A voice called out from the dance floor.
“Is that my husband stirring up shit again?”
“Mind your business, Flora!” Brian called back to his wife. He grabbed Frank’s hair and held his head back. The eyes of the drunk man never opened.
“You’re not waking him up for this shit. He’s been working overtime all week and with planning this party. Why don’t you cool off? Here, have a beer,” said Donna, handing him a cold can.
“I’m still your uncle,” started Brian. “Knowing him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were here to lift all our wallets.”
“No, I’m clean, Uncle Brian. Ten months.”
“What about your little girlfriend?”
“Far as I know she could still be there. I broke up with her before we were sentenced.”
“Good, it’s just as well. I told you she was nothing but trouble,” said Donna, trying her best to hide her joy.
“She can do what she wants. I just want to work and save some money. I was thinking about moving back ‘round here once my probation’s over.”
“Why? Nobody wants you here!” yelled Brian.
“Speak for yourself,” said Donna.
“Brother and sister against their uncle, huh?”
“Come on, Uncle Brian, it ain't like that. I just think we should give him a chance, is all. Wayne, don’t you think we should let him stay?”
“Don’t get him involved in this!” screamed Brian.
The rest of the family heard the argument in the kitchen over the music. The DJ turned the music up to drown out Brian. The liquor and beer, intended for everyone, sat on the kitchen counter next to the pile of used sterno cans. Nobody dared go to the bathrooms next to the kitchen out of respect.
“If it’s the money you want, I have it on me,” said Jimmy.
“It’s not just the money. You stole from me. From family, from all of us, because you’re an addict and a convict. My brother should have never brought you in,” said Brian, spittle flying out of his mouth.
“I said I was sorry,” said Jimmy, never breaking eye contact.
Donna positioned herself between the two men.
“Didn’t you go to jail too, Uncle Brian?” asked Donna, referring to an incident when Brian broke a bar stool over another man’s back.
“Now you hold on there, Donna. You hold on just a second.”
“And you hurt someone too. So judge not lest ye be judged. Know what I mean?”
Brian turned white.
“Look, can’t we let bygones be bygones for tonight? We got whiskey and Jimmy, there’s still cake if you want some, boo,” continued Donna.
Wayne turned around to walk out.
“Where you goin'?” asked Brian.
“Bathroom,” he replied.
“Come on, let’s all have a drink together. Where is that whiskey y'all brought back?” asked Donna.
Brian reached into the paper sack and passed the first bottle. She cracked it and poured out three shots in red Solo cups.
“To the children,” said Brian, eying Donna.
“And their mothers,” added Jimmy.
Three cups met in the middle, eyes focused wide and unblinking. Donna chased hers with a beer and shook her head, breaking the silence.
“Woo! Thanks Uncle Brian. Better’n that shit Frank drinks,” slurred Donna.
“Wasn’t anything. It’s a celebration,” he said, stumbling in place. Wayne came out.
“Aw shit, we forgot Wayne! Wayne, we did a shot without you! That’s okay, now you gotta do two,” said Donna, putting her arm around his shoulder, leading him.
“No, no, I’m good. Thanks Donna. I’m good with my beer.”
“My son the teetotaler?” asked Brian with a smirk.
“No, but I know I’ll probably get stuck driving you and Mom home. Besides, Donna, you got money to bail me AND him out?” said Wayne. Everyone laughed.
“Nope! But I’d bring you both leftovers from tonight!”
Brian’s face had softened as his attention was diverted by Flora who called him over to their table by the dance floor. Jimmy looked in admiration at his sister, a woman, who in his eyes, even when intoxicated, knew exactly how to handle family.
“You know Wayne, I spotted some drank in the DJ’s record crate. I told him to keep it out of sight until the old folks left. That’ll be an hour’s time,” said Donna, her hand moving to Jimmy’s hips.
“No, I’m good, I’m good,” said Wayne, shoving his hand in his pocket.
“Leave ‘em alone, sis, he’s fine.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just happy to have two of my boys here, I got my cousin and I got my brother back. What other man do I need?”
“Your husband, who’s passed out right next to you,” said Wayne with a laugh.
“And Uncle Brian,” added Jimmy.
“Oh, well him…..” she snorted, only to interrupt herself with another idea. “Wait, you know what…”
She brushed past both of them, Jimmy catching her shoulder. She spun around.
“Where you goin'? Don’t rile him up, Donna.”
“I’m not riling anyone up, I’m gonna fix this once and for all.”
“Donna, you know he won’t leave. I didn’t come here to fight with anyone,” said Jimmy.
“It’s true! Donna come back!” yelled Jimmy, cupping his hands around his mouth.
“Uncle Brian!” she called. Only the older family members remained at the table, too tired and too drunk to dance. The oldest had left before Jimmy arrived.
“What?” came the reply
“Come here a minute!”
“I was just there!” he yelled back in exasperation.
“Just come here a second!”
He grumbled and rose from his chair. She met him halfway at one of the many folding tables spread across the hall, centered on the dance floor.
“Come back to the kitchen again. I gotta ask a favor of you.”
“Y’all should change Missy’s birthday to ‘Ask a Favor Day’ since that’s all you’ve been doing since I got here,” he muttered.
Donna rolled her eyes and led him back.
“Hey, I need you, too,” she said, grabbing Wayne, who was on his way to request a song from the disc jockey.
All three men dreaded this moment, each of them knowing what she would ask. Brian took a deep breath.
“I want you two to shake hands.”
“Get the fuck outta here!” yelled Brian. By this time Flora was now behind him as well.
“Brian, just shake his hand already,” admonished Flora.
“Don’t you remember he stole your watch and those earrings I gave you for Christmas?”
Jimmy blushed. Flora grew irritated.
“Be a man at least and shake his hand!” she replied.
This gave Brian pause. Jimmy looked at his aunt, her arms crossed in triumph. All it took was a few drinks and a challenge to masculinity, both delivered by a woman.
“Come on, Uncle Brian. It’s Missy’s birthday. Do you want her to grow up watching us constantly fight? Because I don’t,” interjected Donna, inspired to drive the last nail in.
“Shit, are y’all gonna drag her out and stick her in front of my face, too? Fuck! Fine, here,” said Brian dejectedly.
He relented, shoving his calloused hand out. He squeezed Jimmy’s hand tight and clapped him on the back, smiling when he felt Jimmy jump.
“Sorry I said that about your daddy. He was a good man,” said Brian. Jimmy put his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
The women gave each other a tight smile, knowing the gesture only signaled a temporary, fragile peace.
“C’mon, let’s get a drink,” said Brian with a half-snarled upper lip.
“You already have one in your hand,” said Flora, shaking her head.
Any ounce of sheepishness by this time was gone.
“Let’s get another one.”
“No,” she replied, grabbing his hand and putting his drink down, eyeballing him. “I want to dance.”
Without missing a beat, he reached over to the cup on the table, where Frank’s nephew by blood, Bill, leaned in to whisper something dirty in the ear of his girlfriend. A hand closed over Brian’s and tightened its grip as he turned to yell,
“Listen you, look at me,” Flora said with a darkened face, turning his shoulder. “I have to drive your ass home.”
He threw her hand off.
“Don’t touch me. The boy’ll drive us,” he snarled.
“Honey, relax. Wanna go for a walk instead? Get some air?”
He grabbed the cup, squeezing and cracking the plastic. Whiskey leaked out, spilling onto the table. Bill pulled back from the table cursing, whipping alcohol off his pants.
“Goddammit! What’d you do that for?” yelled Bill.
“Why are you mad at me all of a sudden?” asked Flora.
Heads turned. The girl, who Bill only introduced to Donna and Frank earlier, soaked the liquid up with dirty napkins scattered on the table. Brian walked away with a grunt. At two tables across the temporary tiled dance floor (courtesy of Frank’s job) Brian stopped to nonchalantly take both drinks from the hands of two women. Their conversation stopped in shock as he walked away. Both got their purses and stood up.
Meanwhile, Donna snorted as she laughed, clapping Jimmy’s shoulder. Wayne stood awkwardly close.
“Jimmy, I’m so glad you’re done with that girl. She’s a bitch and trash and…” she trailed off, watching Bill jump up and Brian stomp off outside
“Shit. ‘Scuse me…” she said walking away to warn Flora about her husband.
Brian hung around by the door, chugging one cup full of ginger ale and bourbon, pieces of ice running down his neck.
“I’m fuckin’ goin’ home. Fuck y’all,” he said, searching his pockets for car keys. The clip with his bottle opener was missing from his back jeans pocket.
“Flora, where the fuck are my keys?”
Inside, Donna handed Flora a sweating can of soda.
“Thanks. See what I told you? Would you listen to that man acting like a jackass? That’s your uncle over there, honey,” she said, shaking her head.
“Keep him away from Jimmy,” warned Donna.
“Don’t bet on it, little girl. I didn’t tell you to bring him,” whispered Flora as she walked out.
“Flora? FLORA! Where the fuck…ohhh.”
“Would you get over here?”
Brian looked at her, head hanging like a scorned dog.
“You were gonna leave without me?” she asked.
“What? No, I can’t find my keys,” he slurred.
“That’s cuz I got ‘em. One of us has to drive home and I’m not going head first off a mountain cuz a you.”
He smiled and swayed standing next to her.
“I brought you a cold drink.”
He went to drink the beer he still held, only to be intercepted.
“Whatever. Come on, let’s go back. I wanna dance. We’ll dance and then we’ll go home,” she urged.
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Fine, I’ll dance with you. Just keep him away from me, or I’ll kill ‘im.”
“Don’t pay him no mind, Brian. He ain't even there.”
Of course that was a lie. Jimmy was telling a group of people a dirty joke. Several men howled, their laughter heard outside. In a desperate bid for his attention, leading him back in, Flora grabbed her husband’s crotch, surprising herself.
She grinned and shook her head as he followed her back inside. At the table with turntables, the disc jockey swept broken glass onto a piece of cardboard off a 12-pack.
“How many bottles are you fucking people gonna break tonight?” he yelled.
“Only that one cuz it’s a birthday! Someone’s gotta return ‘em to the party store tomorrow and get the refund!” somebody yelled back.
The crowd around the DJ laughed.
“Just don’t give 'em to Uncle Brian. He’ll jus’ take the money and buy a handle of rye for himself and a box of macaroni and cheese for Aunt Flora to cook,” whispered Donna to Jimmy.
Jimmy chuckled nervously and turned around to check if anyone heard her. It wasn’t as much whispered as it was shouted. Wayne was no longer behind them, but stood by the turntables. Their eyes met from across the room, the two nodding before Wayne turned.
“Wanna dance?” Jimmy asked, taking his jacket off and sliding it over a folding chair, atop another denim jacket, gazes fixed elsewhere. Donna hiccupped.
“Hell yeah, I wanna dance!” she squealed, grabbing his hand.
They danced close, Donna shimmying up and down, tossing her hair. When it appeared no one was watching, Jimmy put his hand on the small of her back without rebuff. One song mixed into another. Flora looked over the shoulder of her husband and shot Jimmy a warning look. Donna finished her drink in one long gulp and tossed the cup.
“Hey now, sis. Relax!” he yelled over the heavy bass drum.
“You relax yourself! You’re stiff as a board!”
“Sorry, we don’t have dance parties in jail.”
The song began to fade.
“You know, you look good. I’m honestly surprised. I would have thought you’d come out all strung out still with those little prison legs,” she slurred.
“That’s cuz I’m clean and I wasn’t in prison, I was in county. I was only in for ten months.”
“Well, it felt longer than that.”
A slow R&B song came on. Jimmy stopped moving. Both Wayne and Flora were now staring a hole through the pair.
“You were right in saying that before. I always knew something was wrong with that boy. Her, too,” Flora whispered to Brian.
Meanwhile Jimmy sought respite from his gawking relatives.
“I’m gonna get more beers and go out for a smoke,” he said, putting his hand on her back.
He left her, Wayne’s eyes following him as he walked off, stopping to rifle through his jacket pocket for his cigarette pack and matches, while Wayne watched and walked away from the DJ station to the dance floor.
In the kitchen, Frank was awake and drinking water from the faucet.
“Oh shit, Jimmy! Damn good to see you!”
“You too, Frank. Come down to wish your daughter and y’all good health.”
“Fine to see you. Fine, fine, fine,” he said, knocking over a cup with dregs of beer over the counter. “You taking care of my girl out there?”
“Donna? Yeah, she’s okay. How about you?” asked Jimmy.
“Me? I’m fine. I just needed a nap!” he said, running his fingers through his hair.
“Good, good. I’m just goin’ out for a smoke.”
“Goin’ out? You can smoke right here, jus’ don’t put it out on the counter. I don’t wanna be charged for cigarette burns and lose the deposit. I don’t care if you’re adopted or not! Man’s got a right to smoke at a party.”
“I don’t think you can smoke in here, Frank.”
“'Course you can! It’s my fuckin’ party, my goddamn daughter.”
“I’m just gonna get some air,” interrupted Jimmy, stepping back.
“Sure, sure. It IS hot in here. You gotta keep your head straight, get some of that poon. Donna has some fine friends from work I saw before…” he continued as Jimmy walked out into the cool air, lighting a menthol and flicking the match. It stayed lit until it hit the ground.
He leaned on the scratched Charger, the disc jockey’s car, thumb in pocket as he sucked the butt down to its filter, looking up at the stars as trucks barreled down Interstate 79. The music had stopped, screams filling the void. He hoped Brian had tired from dancing and had passed out like Frank had before. As if forgetting something, he patted his jean pockets and walked back in with a deep breath, passing Wayne, who shoulder-checked him on his way out, avoiding eye contact.
Once back in, all eyes were on him.
“There he is, the little orphan, come back to rob us all blind again, just like a junkie,” yelled Brian.
Jimmy froze. Donna walked over in her stocking feet.
“Donna, what in the hell is he talking about?”
“No idea. Uncle Brian, what are you gettin’ at?” asked Donna. Everyone not sitting down moved in closer.
“I might be drunk, but Wayne ain't!”
“Uncle Brian, you’re always fuckin' drunk. That’s why you and Aunt Flora don’t live in a nice house even though you’re both old,” started Frank.
“You’re not blood so you watch your mouth. At least I ain't blind to the fact that your wife wants to fuck her jailbird brother!” growled Flora.
Donna charged her aunt.
“You bitch, I’ll kill you!”
The DJ rushed in to break them apart, his headphones getting caught and falling off, crushed underfoot in the scuffle. To add insult to injury, a woman’s fist connected with his jaw, sending him to the floor amidst the melee. A woman screeched and the leg of a table broke, sending the plastic plates of half-eaten cake and macaroni and cheese to the floor. Brian’s voice called out, “Where the fuck is Wayne?”
In another unfortunate turn, as Jimmy and Brian attempted to pull the women apart, Cousin Billy’s leg was caught under the collapsed table, stray nails catching him in the face. One hand shielded his eyes, while the other jerked his foot out as the record skipped. His girlfriend bawled on her cell phone in the corner with an ear in her finger before dragging him out.
Finally Jimmy threw Donna off her aunt. Despite the advantage of being the first to attack, she had clearly rumbled with someone who knew how to take a punch sober and throw one even better. Glass had gone into someone’s hand, the blood making the floor even slicker, as people struggled to keep their footing, both women yelling threats still.
With the pair broken apart, the noise died down, making the gunshot that rang out clear as a dinner bell when a bullet hit the ceiling.
Brian and Jimmy, both faces purple, turned to see Wayne lowering the Walther P22, pointing it directly at Jimmy.
“Brian, is that your gun?” screamed Flora.
“That motherfucker went through my jacket!” yelled Wayne, walking towards the group as the rest of the party ran out in terror, stepping on each other’s feet.
“That’s bullshit, it was my jacket! They’re not even the same color!” yelled Jimmy, eyes unafraid.
“Wayne, don’t be a retard, boy. Put the gun down!” said Brian, surprised to hear him defending the man he loathed.
“Don’t worry, Dad. He won’t be stealing from anyone anymore,” said Wayne, cocking the hammer.
Frank, seeing an opportunity, cracked a bottle over Wayne’s head. It dazed him, but failed to break or loosen Wayne’s grip on the gun as the two grappled for control. Brian grabbed it finally, his legs becoming entangled, turning and twisting his ankle as he fell to the floor. Unfortunately the hand he used to break his fall happened to be still holding the gun. It went off in a flash, plugging a slug into his right ass cheek.
“Frank!’ screamed Donna.
“I’m shot!” yelled Brian.
The rest of the party was in the parking lot, attempting to peel out without running into each other.
“I don’t have a license for this. Somebody take it before the cops show up,” Brian said, passing the gun off to the nearest male, who happened to be Jimmy. Without even glancing at his wounded uncle he wiped the gun on his shirt and ran outside behind the hall. Blood pooled at the seat of Brian’s pants.
“I have a fucking moron for a son! Get the fuck out of here!” Wayne scrambled to his car.
Jimmy dashed into the woods, desperately digging into the dirt with his hands to bury the gun, throwing the clip into a hollow tree stump as Frank and Flora walked Brian out, his right leg covered in blood. The engine of Wayne’s Nova turned over twice before starting.
“Hurry the fuck up!” yelled Frank. Tears ran down Wayne’s cheeks as he banged on the steering wheel.
“Quit your crying boy and get us to Morgantown General. This is all your fault!” hissed Flora through the passenger side window.
In the car, when they set him down in the backseat, Frank accidentally laid him on his back, causing a litany of swears to pour out of Brian’s mouth.
“Frank, what are you doing? He got shot in the ass, put him on his side!” said Wayne.
“If I were you, I’d shut up and drive. I’m not the one who tried to shoot his cousin,” said Frank.
The car pulled out with the four of them squabbling all the way to the emergency room. Back in the hall, Jimmy was inside surveying the mess of broken chairs and garbage, consoling Donna, who was sobbing in a chair.
“Sorry I ruined your party, Donna. I just missed you, is all,” said Jimmy.
Donna wiped her eyes.
“So Uncle Brian shoots himself in the ass. Ain't that some shit?”
She paused and seemed lost in thought.
“Jimmy?” she asked.
“You didn’t really go through Wayne’s jacket, did you?”
“What do you think?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I don’t know. Actually I don’t even care anymore. You should probably go. I think cousin Billy’s girlfriend called the cops. I don’t want you getting hauled back in because Wayne wanted to impress Uncle Brian,” she said, shaking her head in resignation.
They walked out together, side by side. In front of the Camaro, he turned and looked through her eyes for a sign. Neither had the brashness to fulfill their collective desire and nothing further needed to be said. As the headlights came on and the engine revved, he rolled down the window.
“Take care, sis. See you next year.”
Eric Nelson is a young writer hailing from Ridgewood, Queens. His work has been published in Squawk Back, Having a Whiskey Coke With You, 50 to 1, The Best of We'll Never Have Paris, Volume 1 Brooklyn, The Silk City Series, and others. He is also co-curator of the reading series, Fireside Folies, and a founding member of the 1441 Writers Collective, both based out of Brooklyn, New York.