“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.
“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.
Jeff 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.