(An excerpt from After the Parade, forthcoming from Scribner.)
Aaron’s jaw ached as it did after a visit to the dentist, but the bubblegum was gone. The last thing he remembered was filling his mouth with gumballs, purchased with the pennies that his father’s fellow policemen had slipped into his pocket at his father’s funeral the week before, while behind him, his mother paid for his new school shoes. One minute she had been writing a check while chatting with the salesclerk and the next, sobbing with her head on the counter. By the time the ambulance arrived to take her away, summoned by the salesclerk, who chastised him for being the sort of boy who chewed gum while his mother fell apart, the wad in his mouth was so large that he could not breathe.
He kept his eyes closed and breathed in, focusing on the smells: metal, ointments, and Band-Aids fresh from the wrapper, as well as something unfamiliar, a thick odor that he thought might be dead people, for he knew that he was in a hospital. He had never actually smelled a dead person, not even his father, but he knew they smelled. His father had said so at supper one night, describing, almost gleefully, the odor of an old woman, five days dead, whom he had found that morning after the mailman noted an accumulation of mail.
“We had to break in,” his father said. The idea of the police breaking into a house had shocked Aaron. “Found her tipped back in her recliner with a bowl of grapes in her lap. She choked.” His father paused. “The stink of the human body,” he said with awe. He took a long drink of milk, got up, and retrieved the shirt he had worn that day. “Smell here,” he said to Aaron’s mother as he held it to her nose repeatedly, wanting her to be impressed by the stink of the old woman also, but his mother said, “It just smells like you, Jerry.”
Aaron opened his eyes. On a chair was the box with his cheap dress shoes. He remembered the saleswoman running out to the ambulance with it as it prepared to take his sobbing mother away, and he wondered whether this meant his mother was nearby. A man came in. “How are you, Aaron?” asked the man.
“Are you the doctor?”
“I’m a nurse,” the man said. He held Aaron’s wrist and stared up at the clock on the wall. Aaron had not known that men could be nurses.
“Do you feel groggy?” the man asked. “We had to give you a sedative to loosen your jaw.” Groggy was a word Aaron knew. The man was looking at a chart, and when he glanced up and smiled, Aaron was startled to see that he was wearing braces.
“Yes,” he said, “I feel groggy. Is my mother here?”
“Your uncle’s here,” the man said, as if that were the same thing.
When the door opened, it was not Uncle Petey but a stranger with a nub for an ear, the skin smooth and pink. “Hello, Aaron,” said the stranger. “I’m your uncle.”
“My uncle is Petey,” Aaron informed the man politely. Petey was his mother’s brother, who had stayed with them during his father’s funeral.
“Ah, yes, Petey,” the man said. “A name better suited for a parakeet, don’t you think?” He gave Aaron a moment to agree, but Aaron did not. “Lives up on the Iron Range. Fine country, the Iron Range. They’re really doing God’s work up there, though I suspect your uncle Petey’s not involved with any of that.”
“He works in a mine,” Aaron said. He did not tell the man that the mine was closed or that Uncle Petey had quit even before that because he was afraid of the dark.
“My name is Irv Englund,” said the man. “You can call me Mr. Englund. We need to get going because it’s nearly suppertime, but let’s have a prayer first.”
He took Aaron’s hand and prayed aloud in a fast, rhythmic chant, asking God to make Aaron into a child worthy of becoming a lamb. When he said “Amen,” he pressed Aaron’s hand hard against his nub. It was as smooth as Play-Doh. Aaron pulled away, and his uncle laughed.
Mr. Englund drove an El Camino, a type of car Aaron knew because his father had always pointed them out. “The car that wants to be a truck,” his father liked to say, “or maybe it’s a truck that wants to be a car.” He had smirked as though they were talking about much more than automobiles.
They got into the El Camino. “Ready?” said his uncle. He slapped Aaron’s leg as though they were pals, but the pain was sudden and sharp. Aaron nodded.
Several minutes later, they exited the interstate and stopped at the top of the ramp to wait for the light to change. Aaron thought they were in Fargo, though the two towns were connected and he could rarely tell them apart. Just outside Aaron’s window was a man perched on a backpack, a sleeping bag and pan attached to it, a crutch across his lap. His uncle leaned over and locked Aaron’s door. “Homeless people like to sit here and wait for the light to turn,” he said. “Just when you’re rolling away, they reach in your window or yank open the door and grab something.”
“What do they grab?” Aaron asked.
“Whatever they can get their hands on—a purse or briefcase, even a sack of groceries.” Groceries, his uncle explained, were not as popular because the homeless people wanted money. “For their vices,” he added.
Aaron knew what a vise was. There was one attached to his father’s worktable in the basement. When his father was away at work, Aaron used to go down and look at his tools, trying to make sense of them but really trying to make sense of his father, who was attracted to them. The vise had perplexed him. When he finally got up the courage to ask his father what it was for, his father said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and he took Aaron’s hand, held it in the air between the two sides of the vise, and began to turn the handle so that the sides moved toward each other, toward Aaron’s hand. Aaron felt an unpleasant pressure, which crossed over into pain. He tried to pull away but couldn’t. His father was watching him, waiting. Aaron whimpered, and his father loosened the vise. “Now you see how that works,” he had said.
“They use the money to buy vises?” Aaron asked. It made no sense to him.
“They’re addicted,” said his uncle. “Vices cost money, so they take what they can get and run down under the bridge over there.”
Aaron looked out at the homeless man, who gazed steadily back at him as he brought his empty hand to his mouth, fingertips pressed together. “I don’t think he can run,” Aaron said. “He has a crutch.”
“The crutch?” his uncle snorted. “That’s a prop.”
Aaron did not ask what a prop was. The light changed, and they drove in silence, finally pulling into the driveway of a white brick house, a house that looked like every other house around it. Aaron wondered whether he had driven by the house before, on family outings or trips to the dentist. His father had known everything about both towns. He took shortcuts and never got lost and told stories as he drove, like a tour guide pointing out important sites. “You see that house with the red roof?” he had said as they left town on the Englund family vacation. “I answered a call there a few weeks ago, a girl, maybe twelve or thirteen. Cute thing. A garter snake got inside the pipes and came up through the bathroom faucet. It was stuck halfway out of the tap, and the kid was afraid to call her parents because they told her never to call them at work unless it was an emergency. She told me she’d shut the door and tried to forget about the snake, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it wiggling around in there.”
“What did you do, Jerry?” asked his mother.
“I yanked it out and lopped off its head with my pocket knife.” His father laughed, perhaps recalling the weight of the dead snake in his hands.
“I hope you didn’t just leave it there,” said his mother breathlessly.
“Of course not,” his father said. “Why would I do that? The kid was in tears. She hugged me when I left. You think I’d just leave a dead snake in her bathroom?”
Aaron had not been able to stop thinking about it: that the girl, afraid to call her own parents, had called his father. Even more confusing was that his father had not laughed at her for being afraid or dangled the dead snake in front of her. He had not yelled at her to stop crying. Instead, he had helped the girl, and she had hugged him.
His father had pointed out houses belonging to drug dealers and a park where a homeless man who eschewed shoes, even in winter, had been found beaten and tied to a swing set by his hair. While they waited for the paramedics, his father had freed the man by cutting off his hair. “I did him a favor,” his father said. “It was filled with bugs and leaves and shit, actual shit, but Rapunzel there actually swore at me for cutting it.”
Everywhere they drove, his father had told stories like these, the town as familiar to him as his own living room, but never once had he said, “That house over there, the white brick with the perfect yard? That’s where my brother lives.” He had never even said that he had a brother.
“Ready to meet your cousins?” asked his uncle, and they went inside the white brick house, where a woman and too many children for Aaron to make sense of at once were waiting at a long table. His uncle sat down at the head and motioned to the empty chair beside him. Aaron wanted to wash his hands first, but he was too nervous to ask. They bowed their heads and recited a lengthy prayer, and because Aaron was not familiar with praying, he kept his head down longer than the others. When he looked up, everyone was staring at him. There was no talking during dinner, just the impressive sound of many forks and knives being utilized at once. A girl slightly older than him tipped over her milk, and his uncle turned to her and said, “What’s that good for?,” which was what Aaron’s father had always said when he spilled. At the end of the meal, they prayed again, and the girl who had spilled her milk was told to apologize.
“God, I’m sorry I spilled my milk,” she said, her voice delicate as porcelain.
“That you have so graciously provided,” her father said.
“That you have so graciously provided,” she repeated.
“Fine,” Aaron’s uncle announced. “Everyone who has eaten what was put before him is excused. Devotions will be read in one hour.”
Two boys remained at the table. They sat with their backs straight, staring ahead rather than down at the onions that they had extracted with great care from the potato salad. “So, Matthew, Mark,” their father said, sounding strangely jovial. “No onions for you boys tonight?”
The boys did not answer.
“Well, I guess you know what to do.”
They rose and pushed open the sliding glass door that led out to the backyard, and their father called after them, “And not from the elm.”
Aaron’s aunt came in from the kitchen. “Popcorn with devotions?” she asked.
“Yes,” his uncle said, “but none for Matthew and Mark.”
She spoke to Aaron for the first time. “Do you like popcorn?” she asked hopefully. He told her that he did, and she said, “I’m glad.” He picked up a plate from the table to help the way he did at home. “Aaron,” she said, “that’s not for boys.” He could see the girls moving around in the kitchen, washing dishes and making order.
Matthew and Mark returned, each carrying a stick from which the bark had been peeled. They handed the sticks to their father, turned, and lowered their pants, revealing buttocks as pale as the flesh of the stripped branches. Only then did Aaron understand that the boys were about to be spanked. He wondered what they had thought about as they searched for the perfect sticks and prepared them with the knowledge that the sticks would soon be used against them. His father had delivered spankings with his belt, which he unbuckled and slid slowly from its loops. If he was still wearing his uniform, there was an extra step, the removing of the holster, a step he had conducted with great ceremony, as if the spanking were an official duty.
Aaron did not want to watch his cousins getting spanked, so he studied a clay reproduction of the Last Supper that hung on the dining room wall. The hanging had broken and been mended poorly, the largest crack creating the appearance of a rift between those to Jesus’s left and those to the right, with Jesus himself at the epicenter. Behind Aaron the sticks whizzed through the air, but Matthew and Mark were silent. At last, he heard his uncle leave the room, his cousins zippering their pants and leaving also.
Next to the Last Supper was a painting of a man. “Your uncle painted that,” his aunt said from behind him. “He made it for my birthday a few years ago.” Aaron tried to imagine his uncle sitting in a room holding a paintbrush, but he could not. “It’s the nicest gift I ever received,” his aunt declared. “It’s not paint-by-number. It’s all freehand.”
“Who is it?” he asked.
“It’s Jesus,” said his aunt. She sounded horrified by his question, but Aaron had seen pictures of Jesus and this looked nothing like him.
“Why is he wearing a stocking cap?”
“That’s the crown of thorns,” his aunt said. With her finger, she traced the rivers of blood that ran from the crown down Jesus’s face. The blood was cherry red, which gave the painting a festive quality. She went back into the kitchen, and Aaron crept over to the table by the door on which his uncle had dropped the box with his dress shoes. When he lifted the lid, he missed his mother and their house with a sudden, sick longing.
Copyright © 2015 by Lori Ostlund. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Lori Ostlund’s novel After the Parade (Scribner, September 2015) is on the shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Her first book, a story collection entitled The Bigness of the World, won the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and the 2009 California Book Award for First Fiction. Stories from it appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Scribner will reissue the collection in early 2016. Lori has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Most recently, her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Southern Review, and the Kenyon Review. She is a teacher and lives in San Francisco.