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#136

The Uncles Grim



                 Tia’s mother Rosanna called her from work. Tia had just gotten home from the pool and settled onto the couch, her damp swimsuit soaking through her shorts and onto the cushions.

                “I want you to pack up a few days’ worth of stuff and go stay with your uncles,” said Rosanna. “Just for a couple days.”

                “What? No,” said Tia. “Why would I do that?”

                “I just don’t think you should be around the house for the next few days,” said Rosanna. “I think it would be better if you weren’t.”

                “Mom, did you really think you could get through this without explaining what’s going on? I’m not staying with Uncle Manny and Uncle Parker for any amount of time unless you give me a good reason.”

                “I shouldn’t have to,” said Rosanna. “I should just be able to tell you there’s a good reason and that should be enough for you.”

                “Well, it’s not,” said Tia. Her mother was silent for a moment. “Is this about Bradley?”

                “I just think he’s going to violate the restraining order,” said Rosanna. “And as soon as he does, he breaks parole and he’s right back in jail and everything’s fine. Even if he just pulls into the driveway, that’s a violation. I don’t even have to talk to him. I’m not going to, if I can help it.”

                “Is that how it works?” asked Tia. “Did you ask the lawyer if that’s what’ll happen?”

                “Don’t worry about the legal stuff, Tia. I just don’t want you at the house when it all goes down.”

                “I should be here to help,” said Tia. “I should be here to support you. It won’t be as bad if we’re here together.”

                “You know that’s not true,” said Rosanna. “You always set him off. You don’t know how to handle him.”

                “Neither do you!” Tia stood up and looked down at the dark spot she’d left on the couch, patting it with her hand to determine if it warranted fetching a towel or not. “Why can’t I stay at Amy’s house instead?”

                “I don’t want to drag anyone who isn’t part of our family into this,” said Rosanna. “I don’t want Amy’s family to be involved in any way. It’s embarrassing, Tia. It’s bad enough that we’re imposing on your uncles. ”

                “Great, so I’ll be imposing?” Tia heard a different, fainter voice on her mom’s end of the phone call.

                “I have to get back to work,” said Rosanna. “Please go to your uncles’ place and please don’t argue anymore. That’s all I ask. And if you see Bradley anywhere, please call me right away. Love you, Tia, bye.”

                Tia wanted to argue more, and she wanted to stay in the house and support her mom, and she had no desire to stay at her uncles’ house. But Bradley scared her. She went upstairs, got her suitcase out of the closet, and began to pack.

 

                Tia’s uncle Manny showed her the room she’d be sleeping in as long as she was staying with him and her uncle Parker. “We usually use it as a junk room,” said Manny. “But we cleaned it up for you. Well, Parker cleaned it up for you.”

                The room was almost bare. There was a queen-sized bed against the far wall and a stack of blue binders rested next to the open, empty closet. “This is the junk room?” asked Tia. “It’s spotless. Where did all the junk go?”

                “It was just the binders,” said Manny. “He restacked them.”

                “Well, that was nice of him,” said Tia. She walked into the room and set her bag down on the bed.

                Manny was the youngest of Rosanna’s siblings, only ten years older than Tia. Uncle Parker was older than Rosanna, almost 50.  Manny still looked young and seemed to be in good shape, but he also always looked like he’d just woken up and he had a shaggy, uneven haircut that made him look unintelligent, which he was not.

Even though they lived in Multioak, Tia didn’t see much of her uncles and never really had. She had vague memories of them from when she was little. Parker had always been a somber, silent presence, but Manny used to be a lot of fun. He’d been a teenager when Tia was a kid and she remembered him as being lively and a little crass and that he always brought new girlfriends to family gatherings. Then he moved away, something bad happened to him, and he came back to Multioak and moved in with Parker. Tia wasn’t sure if it was whatever had happened to him when he moved away or if it was moving in with Parker or if it was just getting older or if it was some combination of all of those things, but whatever it was, Manny had changed. He was still more talkative than Parker, but his high-pitched laugh had withered and become a rarely-occurring, detached chuckle. He expressed no strong opinions, never offered any personal information about himself, and Rosanna said he had no ambition, but that was a catch-all criticism she used to describe pretty much anyone of whom she didn’t approve. Parker was also on her list of people who she considered without ambition.

“So how long do you think you’ll be here?” asked Manny. “Your mom didn’t tell us much. She was vague about why you’re even here at all, actually.”

                “It’s my mom’s awful boyfriend,” said Tia. “He got out of jail and she thinks he’ll come around the house to try to win her back. She got a restraining order on him though, so he should be back in jail in a couple of days.”

                “Is this Bradley?” asked Manny. “I met him once or twice.”

                “Yep,” said Tia. “I wanted to stay with her but she wouldn’t let me. She said I had to come here.”

                “She’ll be fine,” said Manny. “I doubt there’s much you could do anyway.”

                “I could support her,” said Tia. “I could be there for her.”

                “Yeah,” said Manny. “But those aren’t really real things. That’s not really helpful. Not really.”

                Tia was insulted but she didn’t want to argue with her uncle as long as he was being nice enough to host her.

                “So what do you want for supper?” asked Manny. “Parker always picks up supper on the way home from work. He likes driving so he’ll swing by anywhere.”

                “I dunno,” said Tia. “What are you gonna get?”

                “I just get whatever Parker gets,” said Manny.

                 “Um,” said Tia. “I’ll just run and get something for myself if I get hungry.”

                Manny nodded and left Tia alone in the guest room. She heard him walk down the hall to his bedroom and close the door. A heavy silence wrapped itself around the house and began to squeeze. Tia thought maybe singing a song to herself would help, but for the first time in her life, she couldn’t think of a song that she felt like singing. Everything that came to mind just seemed sort of trite or weak. Tia really hoped Bradley would harass her mother soon.

 

                That evening, after Manny and Parker ate bland burritos in the living room and Tia watched them eat while drinking a bottle of iced tea from the fridge, Manny returned to his room and Parker hooked his laptop up to the TV so he could watch some kind of web-based news program on the bigger screen. Tia wasn’t interested in the show, but there was nothing else to do, so she and Parker sat on opposite ends of the couch and watched a surprisingly young man who had set up a desk in what was clearly his garage talk about the general state of modern society in very bleak terms.

                “Is this all this is?” asked Tia after a few minutes.

                “No,” said Parker. “He’s about to get into the local stuff?”

                “Local? As in Multioak? This is from Multioak?”

                “Yes,” said Parker. “That’s Arnie. He lives next door. One house to the west.”

                “What kind of local stuff does he talk about?” asked Tia.

                “Tragedies on a local or personal scale,” said Parker.

“How often does this come out?” asked Tia. “What’s it called again?”

                 “Daily,” said Parker. “And it doesn’t have a title.”

                “How does this guy find out about local tragedies?” asked Tia. “Don’t people get mad that he talks about their tragedies on his show?”

                “He’s very connected to the local tragedy scene,” said Parker. “He has connections everywhere. And no, people don’t get upset. He doesn’t use any names and he treats them all very solemnly because big or small, they’re all tragic. You’ll see.”

                “Don’t you find this depressing?” asked Tia.

                Parker nodded. “Yes, I do.” Tia’s uncle Parker was thin and he had small, dark eyes that didn’t suit him. He wasn’t much taller than Tia. Maybe two inches. He managed a cell phone store and he wore the yellow polo shirts that constituted his work uniform every day, even on days he didn’t work, even when he mowed the lawn. Tia didn’t see him very often, but every time she did he was wearing one of his yellow work shirts. She hoped it was because he owned a lot of them and not because he just wore the same shirt every day.

                “How much longer is it?” asked Tia.

                “They’re of varying lengths depending on how much material he has,” said Parker. “But there’s a lot left. Do you not like it?”

                “Not really,” said Tia. “No.”

                Parker bent down to the laptop sitting on the floor and paused the video. “Do you want to watch something else?”

                “No,” said Tia. “But,” she lowered her voice. “Can I ask you a question?”

                “Yes,” said Parker.

                Tia turned to face Parker on the couch and pulled her legs up as she leaned closer to him. “What happened to Manny before he came back? Why is he so sad now?”

                “Ah,” said Parker. “I don’t know.”

                “You don’t know?” Tia didn’t believe him. “He’s never told you?”

                “No,” said Parker. “And I’ve never asked.”

                Tia sighed. “Well, it’s nice of you to be supportive of him now.”

                “I don’t support him,” said Parker. “He collects unemployment. I don’t charge him rent, but I don’t support him either.”

                “I meant emotionally,” said Tia. “Like an older brother. You look out for him.”

                “Not really,” said Parker. “That’s not really doing anything.”

                “Manny said the same thing when I said I wanted to be at home to support my mom,” said Tia. “Did he get that from you?”

                “I don’t know,” said Parker. “I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed that topic.”

                Tia figured Manny must have picked up his disdain for emotional support from Parker somehow, but she had no trouble believing that it had not come about through direct discussion. From what little she’d seen, Parker and Manny hardly spoke to each other at all.

                 “Do you mind if I watch the program again now?” asked Parker.

                “You don’t need my permission,” said Tia.

                Parker bent down to the laptop and un-paused the video. Tia sat back on the couch to watch. She was curious to see what the show would be like once it got to the local material. After a few more minutes of broad criticism, during which Parker told Tia that Arnie “always contextualizes tragedies,” the program shifted abruptly and drastically, and once it did, Tia didn’t last long.

                “A Multioak man,” said Arnie, sitting at the desk in his garage and reading off of a blue sheet of paper without looking up at the camera, “was fired from his job for calling in sick to work too many times. But the man really was sick every time he called in. He’s been sickly his entire life. His job involved handling food and he was terrified of passing along his illnesses to customers. Now he’s still sickly, but he has no job. In addition, he’s 36 and he’s never had a real romantic experience.” Arnie paused and glanced up at the camera. Then he continued, still reading off of the same sheet of paper. “A Multioak boy doesn’t understand his trigonometry homework. His parents have tried to help, the teacher has tried to help, his parents even hired a tutor, but all of their efforts have been in vain. The boy feels incapable of learning trigonometry and that may be the truth. And if he’s incapable of learning trigonometry, of what else might he be incapable? That’s a question he’s been forced to ask himself at age 17.” Arnie paused again, this time without looking up. “A Multioak woman left the front door ajar while talking to a friend in her driveway. While she wasn’t looking, her young granddaughter-”

                Tia stood up and hurried out of the room with her hands over her ears so she wouldn’t hear what happened to the Multioak woman’s granddaughter. Parker said nothing as she walked between him and the TV, didn’t even look up at her. He just watched the screen with his face rigidly composed, silently tapping his feet on the carpet, left-left-right, left-left-right, left-left-right.

 

                Tia closed the door to the guest room, pushed her bag from the bed to the floor, and sat down on the bed with her back against the headboard and her legs outstretched. She took out her cell phone and called her mother, who picked up after the first ring.

                “Did you seem him, Tia? Where was he?”

                “What? No, mom, I was calling to ask if you’d seen him yet.”

                “No, Tia, you know I’ll let you know as soon as it’s over.”

                “I just don’t wanna be here, mom. It’s really depressing. Uncle Manny and Uncle Parker…they’re just…”

                “I know, I know,” said Rosanna. “I know, Tia. It won’t be too long, I’m sure of it. Bradley might not show up at all. If I haven’t heard from in a couple of days, then maybe he’ll just stay away and you can come back home.”

                “A couple of days?” asked Tia. “That long?”

                “Don’t let your uncles get you down, Tia. You’re an upbeat person. Instead of letting them get you down, maybe you could bring some joy into their lives?”

                “Maybe,” said Tia. “I kind of doubt it though.”

                “Manny always liked you when you were a kid. Maybe if you reminisce about those days with him it’ll take him back. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get a little glimpse of how he used to be, right?”

                “I guess,” said Tia. She paused. “Mom, one more question: does it help you to know that I support you? Like, emotionally?”

                “Yes,” said Rosanna. “It helps me very, very, very much. Very much. I’d die without your emotional support, Tia.”

                Tia winced at her mom’s over-the-top response. It was too much. “Good night, mom. I love you.”

                “I love you too, Tia.” Rosanna hung up.

                Tia stood up and walked out into the hall. Down the hall to her left, in the living room, Parker was still watching his show. Tia could hear Arnie’s voice, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying, thank God. Down the hall to her right were Manny and Parker’s bedrooms. Parker’s door was open and his room was dark, but there was a faint light coming from beneath Manny’s closed door. Tia walked down the hall and stood outside of Manny’s room, listening. She didn’t hear any sound coming through the door. The doorknob had a keyhole in it, which Tia thought was odd. She raised her fist to knock and paused. It was as if Tia could sense Manny staring at the door from the other side, poised over whatever he was working on, silently discouraging her knock, willing her away from his room, rejecting whatever it was she was trying to offer him. Tia lowered her hand and walked back down the hall to the guest room, stopping just outside the open door, an uncle to her right and an uncle to her left, each absorbed in his own dark thoughts. Tia stepped into the guest room, closed the door behind her, crossed the room, and knelt on the bed to open the window. She stuck her head out into the summer night and gulped the air.

 

                The next day, Manny emerged from his bedroom just after noon. Tia had woken up when she heard Parker leave for work at 8 and she’d spent a pleasant morning straightening up her uncles’ living room, watching TV shows that were light and cheery, and sunning herself in a plastic chair on the back patio while texting friends. She had just come inside to use the bathroom, and on her way back through the kitchen to the patio door, Manny came into the kitchen wearing very modest boxer shorts and an unzipped hooded sweatshirt that exposed a pale, vertical strip of his torso.

                “Sorry,” said Manny when he saw Tia. “I forgot you were here.” He tried to zip up his sweatshirt but the zipper got stuck a third of the way up and he immediately abandoned the attempt. He did not apologize for his lack of pants, but the boxer shorts really were very modest, so there was no actual need for an apology.

                “It’s fine,” said Tia. “Bradley wore less than that around the house when he lived with us and he’s not even family.”

                Manny said nothing. He stood in front of an open cupboard looking at and not deciding between two boxes of cereal.

                Tia stood with her fingers on the handle to the glass patio door and looked outside at the chair in the sun. It was so close. She turned to Manny. “Hey, do you remember that time you walked all the way over to our house to borrow my mom’s car but she’d forgotten you were coming and she’d taken the car to Riveryard with her boyfriend?”

                “Yes,” said Manny.

                “But then you just hung out with me and my friend Amy for a while? You watched that show that we liked with us, Hangin’ for Real, and you made fun of it the whole time and even though we sincerely liked it, we laughed so hard. And then, I don’t know if you knew this, but we could never take that show seriously anymore after that. We still watched it all the time, but we always tried to copy how you made fun of it. We even used a lot of your same lines, like, the ones we could remember. Like, the way you said ‘Wardrobe!’ all alarmed and angry sounding when Mr. Real came out in those awful pants. Me and Amy still say that. ‘Wardrobe!’”

                “I remember some of that,” said Manny. He finally reached into the cupboard and selected one of the boxes of cereal. Then, cereal box in hand, he moved one cupboard closer to Tia and opened it up, extracting a bowl. There was already a spoon in the bowl.

                “Do you remember any of your other good lines?” asked Tia. “We always wanted you to come watch Hangin’ for Real with us again. Amy even got the DVD box set and we fantasized about having a marathon with you. But then you moved away. And you moved back, but then…yeah.”

                “But then I was different,” said Manny. “It’s fine, I’m not offended. It’s not like I’m unaware. Trust me, I feel different too.”

                Tia felt like maybe this was an indication that Manny wanted to open up to her. “Like, how do you feel different? Sadder?”

                Manny laughed his new, inferior laugh. “Yeah, sadder, sure. Beaten down. I dunno.”

                “Broken?” asked Tia, her voice soft and, she hoped, comforting. She really felt like they were getting somewhere now.

                “That’s a little dramatic,” said Manny.    

                “What made you sad?” asked Tia, undeterred. “What beat you down?” She was not at all convinced that Manny hadn’t been broken, even if he hadn’t admitted it to himself yet.

                Manny poured his cereal into the bowl, did not add milk, and began to eat it with the spoon, half of each spoonful falling off of the spoon and back into the bowl. “Well, it’s ongoing,” he finally said. “It’s my failure to join the Capersicun Chamber of Commerce. I still haven’t figured out how to do it and now my store is gone and I live here so my failure is always around to make me sad or beat me down.”

                “Capersicun? Where’s that? You had a store? What’s a chamber of commerce actually do?”

                “It’s a bunch of businesses in the same town that organize into a group to promote and advocate for business,” said Manny. Tia waited for him to address her other questions, but it soon became apparent that he was not going to. He finished the bowl of cold, dry cereal, did not rinse it out, and put it and the spoon back in the same cupboard where he’d gotten them. Now he looked even sadder than usual.

                “What happened to your store?” asked Tia.

                “I need to get back to work,” said Manny, and he left Tia alone in the kitchen. A few moments later, Tia heard his bedroom door close. Tia wondered what Manny could possibly be working on. He didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests, but maybe that was just because she hadn’t asked about hobbies and interests. She certainly hadn’t known he’d ever had his own store of some kind.

                When Tia went back out onto the patio where she’d left her phone sitting on the cement next to the chair, she saw that she had a missed call from her mom. She picked up the phone and called Rosanna back, hoping she’d called because Bradley was back in jail and Tia could return to the house.

                “Have you seen Bradley?” asked Rosanna. “Has he tried to talk to you?”

                “Ah, mom, I thought you were calling to tell me I could come home.”

                “No,” said Rosanna. “You can’t come home. Bradley’s tried to call me six times since eight this morning, but I haven’t picked up so I don’t know what he wants. I’m just a little worried, Tia. A little.”

                “Well, I haven’t seen him or heard from him,” said Tia. “And I don’t know why I would. You’re his girlfriend, not me.”

                “Tia, you know I broke up with him. You know that. That’s why everything happened and you know it!”

                “It happened because you threatened to break up with him,” said Tia. “That’s not the same.”

                “I thought you were supporting me in this,” said Rosanna.

                “I am, mom. I am, I am. What do you want me to do?”

                “I just want your support,” said Rosanna. “I just need you to be there for me right now.”

                “I’m here,” said Tia, but she had no idea what she meant.

 

                That night, just as Tia, Parker, and Manny were finishing up their identical bland burritos, Bradley showed up at the house. Parker answered the door and even though Tia couldn’t see him from where she was sitting, she knew it was Bradley as soon as she heard his voice.

                “I just need to speak to Tia real quick.”

                Parker stayed in the doorway, blocking the entrance. Tia stood and looked at Manny, who looked back at her and chewed. “Tia,” Parker said without taking his eyes off of Bradley. “Do you want to talk to him?”

                “What do you want?” called Tia. She looked down at Manny, but he was just staring at the last two bites of burrito still in his hand while chewing the third to last bite.

                “Just come over here and talk to me,” called Bradley. “At least come over where I can see you, Tia, this is silly.”

                Tia crossed the room and stood a few feet behind Parker. Bradley was much taller than Parker and Tia could see him looking in at her over Parker’s head. He’d always had long, frizzy hair, but it was short now and the porch light shining down on him from directly over his head made him squint and furrow his brow.

                “How did you even find me here?” asked Tia.

                “I’ve been here before,” said Bradley. “I’ve met these guys. Your mom and I dropped by a couple of times. I noticed that your car was never at the house the last couple days, so I thought you might be here and I saw your car in the driveway.”

                “But why are you here?” asked Tia. “Why are you looking for me at all? Have you talked to my mom?”

                “No,” said Bradley. “She won’t answer my calls. That’s why I need your help.”

                “My help? Why would I help you?”

                Bradley looked confused. “Why? Because you like me and you know I’m good for your mom.”

                “What?” Tia was astounded. “You’re not good for my mom! And I don’t like you, actually. Why would you think I did? We’ve never gotten along!”

                “I don’t get along with anyone,” said Bradley. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not good for anyone or that people don’t like me!”

                “You’re terrible for my mom,” said Tia. “You’re irresponsible, you’re mean, you’re at least verbally abusive…”

                “Look, I’m not here to debate this point,” said Bradley. “I just need you to come with me so we can go to the house and you can go in first and tell your mom that I’m with you and that she should give me a chance to speak before she calls the cops.”

                “Go with you? I’m not going with you!”

                “OK, OK,” said Bradley. “You don’t have to come with me. Just call your mom and tell her to answer my calls so we can talk. I just want to talk.”

                “I’m not calling her for you! I’m not doing anything to help you! Leave me and my mom alone!”

                Bradley tried to push his way past Parker into the room, but Parker, small as he was, especially compared to Bradley’s sturdy 6-plus feet, gripped the insides of the door frame with both hands and wouldn’t move. Tia saw Bradley step back and look down at Parker with contempt and she could tell he was on the verge of hitting him, maybe, or ramming Parker out of the way with a shoulder to the chest, but then Bradley’s expression turned uncertain and then to resignation, which was probably only temporary, but even so, he looked up at Tia again, said, “You can’t just make me disappear,” turned, and left. Parker stood and watched until Bradley pulled his car out of the driveway and drove off down the street. Then Parker closed the door and returned to his seat to finish his burrito. Manny was gone, undoubtedly back in his bedroom. Tia hadn’t noticed when he’d left the room even though he had to have walked right behind her to get to the hallway.

                Tia took her phone out of her purse and called her mom.

                “Did you see him?”

                “Mom, yes, I saw him. He came here.”

                “He was there? At Parker and Manny’s house?”

                “Yes, mom, he was here and he was trying to get me to go with him but Uncle Parker stopped him. He wanted me to go to our house with him and he wanted me to make you talk to him, like, talk you into listening to him, I don’t know, it didn’t make sense.”

                “No,” said Rosanna. “No, no, that is not OK. I can’t believe he would try something like that.”

                “Is that enough to violate the restraining order?” asked Tia. “Can he just go back to jail now? He got pretty aggressive, he was yelling. I thought he was going to hit Uncle Parker.”

                “Um, I don’t know,” said Rosanna. “I…don’t think that’s enough.”

                “Is the restraining order only for you? Is that it?”

                “Yes,” said Rosanna. “Stupid, I know.”

                Tia sighed. “Well, I just thought you should know, mom. He actually told me to call you too, but that was to talk you into talking to him, so this doesn’t count. So if he shows up at the house and asks if I called you, either tell him I didn’t or else tell him I did and I told you to definitely call the cops on him if he showed up. Something like that.”

                “OK,” said Rosanna. “I’ll do that, Tia.” Her voice sounded strange, distracted. A little empty.

                “It was scary, Mom. He hasn’t changed at all.”

                “I know, Tia,” said Rosanna. “This will all be resolved soon. How are your uncles?”

                “They’re…OK,” said Tia.

                “Good,” said Rosanna. “I’ll see you soon and I love you, Tia, bye.” Now she sounded rushed, like she was already pulling her phone away from her ear to hang it up.

                “Uh, wait, what?” said Tia. “Oh, OK, love you too, bye.”

                Tia slipped her phone into her pocket and sat down on the couch next to Parker, most of her burrito still resting on a paper plate on the coffee table in front of her. “Thanks for helping with Bradley,” she said. “I don’t know what he would have done if you weren’t here.”

                “He would have grabbed you and tried to force you into his car,” said Parker. “That’s what I think.” He finished his burrito and began the process of hooking his laptop up to the TV.

                “Um, so,” said Tia, keeping her voice low, “I talked to Manny today.”

                Parker returned to the couch and began cycling through the menu options on the TV with the remote.

                “He told me why he’s sad,” said Tia.

                Parker didn’t speak or even glance at Tia.

                “Don’t you want to know?” asked Tia. “He’s your own brother, Uncle Parker, you should know why he’s sad.”

                “He’ll tell me if he wants me to know,” said Parker.

                “Have you ever asked?”

                “No, I haven’t asked. He’ll tell me if he wants to know.”

                “No, he won’t,” said Tia. “He won’t just bring it up out of nowhere. He’s very sensitive about it. It’s very painful for him. He feels like a failure, Uncle Parker. He’s depressed and he’s never gonna get better without our support.”

                Parker slapped the remote down on the coffee table with startling force. He kept his eyes on the TV, but Tia could see the tension in his profile. “Tia, that store ruined him long before I got involved. Do you know how many people live in Capersicun? Sixteen hundred. There’s no way a town of that size could support a board game store. He had no chance, but he just kept pouring money into it, trying to please that chamber of commerce so they’d let him in. You wouldn’t believe the hoops they made him jump through, Tia, it was humiliating for him but he was so fixated on it, he was so sure that if he could join the chamber of commerce, his store would be a success. I begged him to stop, Tia, I argued and pleaded and cried, but he wouldn’t stop. And then at some point, he’d done so much, he’d debased himself so thoroughly, that he felt he couldn’t stop, because even though he was all but sure the chamber of commerce was never gonna let him in, if he stopped doing what they told him, then he would be certain that all the debasement was for nothing, a waste of time and energy and resources, not to mention the guilt and the shame. If he kept going, then he could at least imagine there was still a tiny chance they’d let him in and then, having achieved that goal, there would have been a reason for all the awful things he’d done, even if that reason was paltry and unsatisfactory.”

                “So you knew this whole time?” asked Tia.

                “Yes,” said Parker. “I know everything. I know more than Manny knows. He knows how I felt about the whole…situation. How I hated it. But he doesn’t know it was me who let the rats loose in his store the night before the health inspection. He doesn’t know it was me who sent the anonymous, insulting letter to the chairman of the Capersicun Chamber of Commerce, but with strong clues hidden inside the message meant to indicate that Manny was its author. And he doesn’t know it was me who paid kids to hang flyers all over town decrying the Satanic influence of several of the games he sold at his store resulting in a public outcry from many of Capersicun’s parents which resulted in several of the most righteously militant fathers smashing through the front window of his store and destroying much of his stock with golf clubs while the cops looked on doing nothing.”

                “Why?” asked Tia, looking at her uncle in horror. “Why would you do that to your own brother?”

                “I helped him,” said Parker. “I saved him, Tia, or what little of him remained. He lost the store, he ran out of money, he got evicted, the Capersicun Chamber of Commerce officially declared him permanently unfit for membership, and I was the only person he had to turn to. I gave him a place to stay. But most importantly, I got him out of Capersicun and away from those evil people in the chamber of commerce. People like you would have me support my brother in his dream. You would have me ‘be there for him’ by ‘just listening’ or offering a ‘shoulder to cry on,’ but I refuse to be that kind of brother. Manny’s dream ruined him, his dream sucked the life out of him and drove away everyone who cared about him except for me. And your mom, but that’s only because she was too wrapped up in her own problems to even notice that her little brother had fallen apart. You think I’m a monster, but I’m the only one who acted, I’m the only one who cared enough to not support my brother.”

                Tia felt sick to her stomach.  “Do you know what he works on in his room?” she finally asked.

                Parker clapped one hand over his eyes and took several deep breaths. When he took his hand away, Tia expected to see tears, but there were none. “He’s trying to figure out how to join the Capersicun Chamber of Commerce. He doesn’t want me to know, but I’ve gone through his things on the few occasions when I’ve been home while he’s not. I have a key to his room that he doesn’t know about. He has lists of names, newspaper clippings, legal documents, a detailed, heart-breaking log of everything they made him do. I don’t know what most of it means, but I know what it adds up to. He’s still trying. He still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the system and join, somehow.”

                “That’s so…” Tia didn’t want to finish the sentence, but Parker finished it for her.

                “Tragic.” And with that, Parker leaned forward, clicked “play” on his laptop, and there on the TV screen was Arnie sitting behind his desk in his garage. The piece of paper in his hand was sea-green today. His shirt was different today too. The part in his hair looked a little straighter. As Arnie began his opening remarks about the generally tragic state of everything, Tia saw Parker look at her out of the corner of his eye, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She was going to stay right there and watch the whole show, she was going to listen to every single tragedy, and she was going to feel just as terrible as Uncle Parker, if not more so.

 

                Tia and Parker had been sitting in front of the TV watching Arnie read anonymous accounts of local tragedies for an hour and a half when they heard a car pull into the driveway, a car door slam, and a few moments later, another knock on the front door.

                Parker pressed “pause” on his laptop and looked at Tia. “Have your phone on you? Just stay here on the couch and be ready to dial 911, OK? I’ll answer the door.”

                Tia nodded. She was scared for her uncle, but she didn’t want to be close enough to Bradley for him to touch her so it was easier than she would have liked to admit to just let Parker make the rules. She watched as Parker walked to the door and opened it. Then she saw his face relax and he turned to Tia and said, “Tia, it’s your mom.”

                Relief flooded through Tia’s body and she hurried around the couch to the front door where her mother stood on the front porch smiling and squinting under the porch light, which really was too bright. Tia was surprised to see her mom wearing new black jeans, high heels, and a purple blouse Tia had gotten her for her birthday two years ago and only seen her wear twice. She wore makeup too.

                “Tia,” said Rosanna, opening her arms to hug her daughter. “Go get your bags, you can come home now.”

                Tia embraced her mom. “Did Bradley show up? Is he going back to jail?”

                “We’ll talk all about it at home,” said Rosanna. “Get your bags.”

                “I’ll get them,” said Parker, and he disappeared into the hallway.

                “Are you OK?” Tia asked her mom. “Was it bad? Did he, like, do anything?”

                “No, no, Tia, it’s not like that. I told you, we’ll talk all about it at home.”

                And then Tia’s eyes strayed from her mother’s face to the car idling in the driveway and her heart sank. The car was Bradley’s and she could see him in the driver’s seat, watching her with a cold, triumphant expression.

                “Mom,” said Tia. “How could…?”

                “Don’t worry, Tia, everything’s fine. We talked it out and everything’s fine.”

                “No, mom, how could anything be fine? What about the restraining order?”

                Rosanna looked sheepish for a moment, but sheepish quickly gave way to defiant. “I made a choice, Tia. I don’t have to explain everything to you.”

                “There never was a restraining order,” said Tia. “You always planned to take him back, even if you didn’t know it. Maybe it was, like, subconscious, I don’t know. Sending me here was just to get me out of the way so I wouldn’t be able to talk you out of it.”

                “That’s not true,” said Rosanna. “Why would I ignore all his calls if I wanted him back? But when you told me he’d come here, I had to call him to tell him to leave you out of it, but when I did, we ended up talking and he explained and now I realize he just needs us that much, Tia, and he needs us to support him now while he’s getting back on his feet, he needs us now more than ever.”

                Parker came back into the room with Tia’s bag. He must have immediately sensed that the mood had changed. “What’s going on?”

                “I’m not going home,” said Tia, still looking at her mother. “My mom took Bradley back.”

                “You have to come home,” said Rosanna. “You can’t impose on your uncles anymore.” She craned her head around Tia to look at Parker and said, “Thank you for letting her stay, Parker. That was very hospitable of you.”

                “She doesn’t have to go,” said Parker. “She can stay as long as she wants.”

                “No, she’s coming home tonight,” said Rosanna. “Right now.”

                In the driveway, Bradley stepped out of the car and took a few steps up the front walk. “What’s the hold up?” he called.

                “You just want me in the house so you can pretend everything’s normal and none of this ever happened,” said Tia. “You want me there so you won’t have to think about why I’m not there.”

                “Tia, just get your bag and let’s go,” called Bradley. “You made your point but now it’s over and you’re coming with us.”

Tia didn’t acknowledge Bradley, although she saw him coming closer out of the corner of her eye. “Leave,” she said to her mom. “I’m staying here.”

                Bradley came up the porch steps and stood behind Rosanna, looming above her. Tia could see that he was angry, but it was the kind of anger that Bradley clearly loved, the kind that made him feel energized and powerful.

                 Fear gripped Tia but she didn’t want to show it. It took all of her will to keep from taking a step back away from Bradley and her mother.

                “All right,” said Bradley. “I’ll get the bag.” He took a step forward into the room and now Tia did step backward, staying between Bradley and her bag.

                “I’m. Not. Going,” said Tia.

                “I will carry you out to the car if I have to,” said Bradley. “You mom wants you home, she wants all of us together and I will drag you all the way there if I have to. I will –” His face froze, his eyes fixed on something behind Tia, and Tia heard a click.

                “Get out,” said Parker.

                Tia turned and saw Parker pointing a handgun at Bradley’s face from ten feet away.

                “Parker,” said Rosanna, stepping into the house from the porch. “What are you doing? I’m your sister.”

                “You too, Rosanna,” said Parker, keeping the gun trained on Bradley. “Get out of my house. If Tia wants to stay here, she can. She can live here if she wants. But you two have to go now.”

                Rosanna started to cry. “Why can’t you just support me in this, Tia? I thought you were going to be there for me. You said you would. I told you how much it means to me.”

                Tia ignored her. She looked up at Bradley, who still seemed to be considering making some kind of move. “He will shoot,” said Tia. “He’ll do anything.” Something in her voice, something in her face, something on Parker’s face, something got through to Bradley because he turned and walked out of the house, and after one more pathetic, pleading look for her daughter, Rosanna turned and followed him.

 

                The next morning, while Parker was at work and Manny was in his room, Tia left the house and walked to the house next door, one house to the west. It was small and beige-colored with an attached garage. Tia knocked on the front door and after a full minute, the door opened and there was Arnie. He didn’t look like he had in either of the shows Tia had seen, but it was definitely him. He wore a backward baseball cap, baggy black sweatpants, and a faded yellow t-shirt.

                Tia and Arnie looked at each other in silence for a few moments and then Arnie said, “Most people just call.”

                “Oh, sorry,” said Tia.

                “No, it’s OK,” said Arnie. “I said ‘most,’ not ‘all.’ Just letting you know calling’s an option. Do you want to come in?”

                Arnie’s living room surprised Tia. It was decorated with a lot of native American paraphernalia and there was a fireplace that had been converted into a little, glass display case filled with trinkets and mundane objects. In front of each trinket or object was a small white card with a name and a date on it. Arnie saw Tia looking at the case and said, “Those are connected to tragedies. The owners can’t bear to keep them around but they also can’t bear to throw them out. Have a seat.”

                Tia sat down on the couch and Arnie sat down across from her on a chair that looked as if it belonged in a kitchen. “You don’t know where to begin,” said Arnie. “Right?”

                Tia nodded. “I don’t even know how much of it qualifies.”

                “You decide that,” said Arnie. “Not me. Have you seen the show?”

                “Yes, I have,” said Tia. “I don’t like it.”

                Arnie didn’t react.

                “I don’t want it to be anonymous,” said Tia. “I don’t care if you use our real names. I mean, I want you to use our real names.”

                “Sorry,” said Arnie. “I won’t do that. Names detract from the essence of the tragedy.”

                “Oh,” said Tia. “Does talking to you help the people who contribute to your show? Does having their stories on the show help them?”

                “I wouldn’t call it ‘help,’” said Arnie. “Not really.”

                “What about that woman who got stood up at the altar at her wedding and then found out that her fiancee and his friends had robbed the homes of her and her parents and all the guests while they waited for him at the chapel and then he’d disappeared? Did it help her to tell you about it?”

                “You know what?” said Arnie, standing up. “I don’t think this is for you. But thanks for watching.”

 

                When Tia got back to her uncles’ house, Manny’s car, which was always parked at the front curb, was gone. Since Tia didn’t have a house key, she was worried that she might be locked out, but when she walked up the porch steps to the front door, she found a key affixed to the door with white masking tape. Her name was written on the tape in all-lowercase letters. Tia let herself into the house and walked straight to Manny’s room. The door was standing open. The room was a mess, but Tia didn’t know how it compared to its usual state. Still, even having never seen it before, Tia could feel that the room had been abandoned. There was something in the way the clothes and books and papers and bedding had fallen that indicated that it had been not merely dropped, but also rejected and forgotten.

                Tia went to the kitchen and found a note affixed to the refrigerator with a magnet. In the same all-lowercase letters from the tape on the front door, the note read simply, I found a loophole. I’m not coming back.

                Tia took out her phone and called her uncle Manny. She didn’t expect him to pick up and he didn’t. The call went through to his voicemail. “Uncle Manny,” said Tia, not knowing if he would ever listen to her message. “I know what you’re doing. I know you think you found a way into the Capersicun Chamber of Commerce. I know that’s where you’re headed now. Uncle Parker says this is what ruined you. You practically said the same thing yourself. So, I don’t know, this is probably a really stupid thing for you to do. Like, the wrong thing to do. And I don’t know what Uncle Parker will do when he finds out. But I just want you to know that I support you. And I don’t care if that means anything to you or not. Good luck, Uncle Manny.” She wanted to end the message by yelling “Wardrobe!” as sort of a cute reference that might make Manny smile sadly and wistfully, but she knew it probably wouldn’t make him smile at all, not even wryly or reluctantly. So she just hung up.




Discussion Questions

  • What are a few surefire methods for cheering up someone who’s depressed? Is one of them to loudly belt out a nostalgic pop song, encourage the sad person to sing along, and to then get mad at the sad person when the sad person refuses to sing along?



  • What wouldn’t you be willing to do to help your “board game store” attain “membership” in your “Capersicun Chamber of Commerce?” You do understand that the quotation marks denote metaphorical language, correct?



  • How do restraining orders work? Here’s a secret: I make my characters as ignorant (or more ignorant) than I am so I don’t have to research anything.



  • Invent a means of measuring the value of emotional support and then state the value of emotional support using the means of measuring emotional support that you just invented. You may work with a partner but only if that partner is of the opposite sex.



  • Have you ever supported someone in an aspiration that you knew was foolish, or dangerous, or based on a delusion? And did that person then go on to succeed beyond even their own wild expectations? Because if so, that experience may have sort of skewed your view on situations like that.



  • In general, do you contextualize tragedy? If not, what are you even doing, you idiot?