The dog would live outside that week. The forecast said rain, but the garage would be full up with cars, so he would have to brave the weather. Thursday morning Jacob led Dances with Beef out back and chained him to the dewy hand-me-down playground equipment that lurched in any gentle breeze. It was sunk, slanted, into the balding mud of their yard, casting a pale gray shadow over abandoned, half-crushed anthills and the forgotten vegetable garden. Jacob touched Dances behind his ears; the dog bared his teeth. Jacob laid out the Corelle food and water bowls. “Here,” he said. “These are yours.” As if the dog was waiting for an invitation. Dances put his nose in the food bowl. His hindquarters swayed as he chewed, and the dangle on his collar twisted, rattled.
“Be good,” said Jacob. He sucked on his braces. They tasted like a fork. When the food was gone, Dances folded his legs, resting his head in the dirt beside the empty bowl. He licked the backs of his teeth and waited for more. Jacob went back inside through the glass sliding door.
Jacob’s mother was calling in sick for him, herself, and Marvin. Jacob’s father had left half an hour before. It was only August and already he was all out of his sick days and vacation.
“Yes,” said Jacob’s mother. “He’s a real trooper. He wanted to go in anyway, but I just don’t think it’d be safe. Thank you,” she said flatly. “Thanks. Thank you.” A pause, an irritated nod that meant Shut Up. “Thank you. Bye.” She depressed the phone’s hook, let up, dialed again from one of several orange post-it notes on the wall, winding the cord around her fat little finger. She nodded in time with the rings. “Hello?” she said. “Yes, this is Melissa Stover, Marvin’s mother. I’m afraid he’s not feeling well today.”
Marvin whistled in the living room as he dusted the television, which was showing a Power Rangers cassette. Rita Repulsa was pretending to cry again while Goldar mourned his wings. “What,” said their mother, “you want to talk to him? Why should you?” She bit her lip and made her cheeks puff out. “Fine, here. Let me bring you to him.” She motioned for Marvin. He darted into the kitchen, outie belly button peeking out beneath his PJ top. She put the receiver to his mouth. He coughed once, pointedly.
Their mother took back the phone. “You see?”
Marvin went back to the television and rewound the tape. Rita Repulsa’s jutting brown plastic cone bra still seemed lewd to Jacob. He had several times considered suggesting Marvin be disallowed from watching the show because it might warp his mind. Marvin was only 6. He had a habit of watching television with his mouth open, sometimes moving his lips silently with the dialogue as if he already knew it, so he seemed to chew and swallow the broadcasts.
“Turn it down,” said Jacob, though it was not very loud. “I can’t hear myself think.”
Marvin ignored him. He turned the neon pink feather duster in lazy circles up against the screen.
“You’re supposed to be cleaning,” said Jacob. “You’re already being lazy, and fat.”
“Kids,” said their mother, whose eyelids were blotched faintly purple from lack of sleep. “Stop it. Do you want your aunt and uncle and cousins to think we sit around hating and fighting each other all day?”
The boys shut up. This had become a mantra in their home the last two weeks since Uncle Ellis called. Ellis was their mother’s older brother, a programmer who had moved to Silicon Valley at the outset of the boom and was now, according to their father, worth several hundred thousand dollars. Jacob took that to be the amount a person would be fined for killing him. Ellis had notified them just 12 days before that he, Aunt Paula, and the girls would be coming to stay. Jacob’s mother suggested hotels that she herself had never visited, carefully arranging her words such that she could vouch for their quality without implying she knew. He said that was okay; they would stay with his sister and her family. He said he missed his nephews. He said it would save them a boatload of money. He said he would really appreciate it. Jacob’s mother asked him how long they would be; she was ready to say no if it was more than five days because she expected the electric company to cut them off within seven of the day her brother would come. He said it would be four days. “We’ll bring our instruments,” he promised. Jacob’s mother gritted her teeth.
Since then she had taken to looking at their home through her brother’s eyes. Jacob thought it might have been better if they had ever seen Uncle Ellis’ house. It couldn’t be as good as his mother thought. She apparently imagined a three-story palace where everyone was too busy admiring the Renoir prints and original, commissioned abstract sculptures to eat or use the toilet. When Marvin scooped spaghetti sauce from his tin Godzilla TV tray with his finger and sucked it off the tip she asked him what his uncle, aunt and cousins would think if they saw him acting that way. He looked down at his plate, surveyed the family, and belched. Then he focused on the television (asking who had the remote) as if he didn’t know she would break another plastic hairbrush on his butt as soon as she felt calm enough to control herself. The handles of dollar store brushes were, they had discovered, hollow and brittle, but the flat side of the head was too broad and weightless to bruise. The boys knew the more angry they made her, the longer their reprieve while she seethed and gathered herself for the task, gnawing the ends of her hair.
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