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Tuesday

Flash Reprint: Jeff Friedman’s “Family”

Fam­ily

Jeff Fried­man

 

“It’s the end of the world,” my father pro­claimed at the break­fast table, ris­ing in his bear-checked paja­mas. “Not again,” my mother replied, emp­ty­ing the scraps on the plates into the garbage and putting the dishes into the dish­washer.

He had that look in his eyes, and he had been up all night read­ing the Black Book and mak­ing notes in his jour­nal in red ink. He showed me his notes, which were inde­ci­pher­able, except for the sen­tence, “Get out of town quick” under­lined twice for empha­sis. I was used to his pre­dic­tions and prophe­cies, used to run­ning down to the base­ment with our belong­ings because he smelled a tor­nado in the air or putting on a lead-lined jump­suit and a hel­met with a breath­ing tube and oxy­gen mask to pre­pare for a nuclear attack.

Once my father thought the chip­munks that bur­rowed under the patio were the souls of his ances­tors. He car­ried on con­ver­sa­tions with them at all hours and got advice on how to invest in the stock mar­ket. He actu­ally did pretty well with his invest­ments so my mother let him con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tions until the chip­munks advised him to sell the house.

“Son, get the boat; it’s our only way out of here.” He said this with some urgency though we were land­locked and had been in a drought for two years. “He means the Cadil­lac,” my mother inter­jected. “But we don’t have a Cadil­lac; we have a Buick.” “Get the car,” she insisted, “and pull it up front so he can see it.”

As always, I did as I was told. When I came back into the house, my father had put on his trousers and a sports coat, and my mother was dressed, but my sis­ter was still strut­ting around in a night­shirt and panties. My father put his hand on Rachel’s ass, which caused my mother to hit him over the head with a pan. When he came to, he ranted on and on about spread­ing his seed to keep the human race alive.

“Ignore him,” my mother said. “Dad’s a perv,” Rachel responded. I shep­herded every­body out of the house because I thought the fresh air would do us all some good, but the air was thick and hot.

The sun caught fire, a blaze spread­ing across the sky. As we walked up the block, we could hear screams and shouts com­ing from our neigh­bors’ houses. Ahead of us, the desert stretched toward the moun­tains. My father ordered us to march across the sand, to keep our faces for­ward, or a dis­as­ter would befall us. But my mother turned back to see flames rain­ing down on her house–all her things lost–and bit­ter­ness plagued her the rest of the days of her life.

 

Note: Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2010, Quick Fic­tion.


 

Author’s Note

“Fam­ily” began as a midrash* on the bib­li­cal story of Lot’s Wife being turned to a pil­lar of salt and the destruc­tion of Sodom and Gomor­rah, but dur­ing the course of writ­ing it, I found myself mix­ing the sad­ness of the sit­u­a­tion with comic exchanges. The father in my story com­bi­nes ele­ments of Lot and the father in Bruno Schultz’s father sto­ries, but is mostly inspired by my own father, a ter­ri­fic sales­man and a ter­ri­ble busi­ness­man. Like my father, this father is up most of the night, and I sup­pose his insom­nia con­tributes to his visions or hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Like Lot, he thinks he’s com­mu­ni­cat­ing with his ances­tors or his God, but the son notes/remembers that the father thinks the souls of his ances­tors speak to him in the voice of chip­munks. And the mother, a com­pos­ite of Lot’s Wife and my mother, allows him to make deci­sions for the fam­ily that she knows are ques­tion­able until he wants to sell the house and then she steps in. The son tells us that the father has fre­quently pre­dicted the end of the world, but in this par­tic­u­lar story his prophecy of fiery destruc­tion appears to be com­ing true. In the Bible, Lot’s wife, after being warned not to look back, looks back and then is turned into a pil­lar of salt. Forced to leave her home, the mother in “Fam­ily” sees the flames rain­ing down, and bit­ter­ness plagues her the rest of the days of her life, but she is not destroyed and still can provide strength for her fam­ily.

*Midrash is an inter­pre­ta­tion of or com­men­tary on a bib­li­cal text or pas­sage.

 

pubphotofromjfriedman copy.jpgJeff Fried­man’s sixth col­lec­tion of poetry, Pre­tenders, was pub­lished by Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity Press in Feb­ru­ary 2014. His poems, mini sto­ries and trans­la­tions have appeared in many lit­er­ary mag­a­zi­nes, includ­ing Amer­i­can Poetry Review, Poetry, New Eng­land Review, The Anti­och Review, Poetry Inter­na­tional, Hotel Amerika, Vestal Review, Quick Fic­tion, Flash Fic­tion Funny, Smoke­long Quar­terly, 100-Word Story, Flashfiction.net, Jour­nal of Com­pressed Cre­ative Arts, and The New Repub­lic. Dzvinia Orlowsky’s and his trans­la­tion of Memo­ri­als by Pol­ish Poet Mieczs­law Jas­trun was pub­lished by Laven­der Ink/Dialogos in August 2014. He and Orlowsky were awarded an NEA Lit­er­a­ture Trans­la­tion Fel­low­ship for 2016.

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