The flies carved unadventurous ellipses in the air, and the humidity reached a point of unreasonable cruelty such that the angelfish occupying the cheap tank on the sideboard could’ve liberated them- selves and circulated the room without discomfort. At the kitchen table, Jorgen, 44 but looking 56, let out a thick belch and repositioned his girlfriend’s leg over his knee. A crushed pack of cigarettes lay in front of him; Loretta spun it with her fingernails, painted an anemic kind of blue that looked like stained White-Out. She spread her shredded shorts— her fly was undone revealing cheap lace underwear with stars.
Stephen stared across the table at the scolding warning on the pack of Kools – smoking kills. Jorgen was never one to heed warnings. Stephen was convinced he had a need to consciously challenge every written ordinance he encountered, from traffic signs to his mother’s framed needlepoint commands back in St. Paul that one pay humility to Our Lord Jesus.
Jorgen’s sister—Stephen’s mother—had gotten away to Jacksonville to defy her family as flamboyantly as possible, picking a state that was the very antithesis of her native Minnesota. Though now religiously secular and a world away from bulky sweaters and Fargo moments,
her Nordic blood had not adapted, and she had a tendency to position herself at the head of their cluttered kitchen table, her back directed towards the violently blasting A/C. This is where she sat now, suffering patiently through her little brother’s displays and fondling the dial of
the hibernating radio. There were seven radios total in their house, their presets invariably set to NPR and to a tasteful jazz outlet Jonas listened to for no reason Stephen could figure out. Jonas, his older brother, strapping, 33, and serious to the point that Stephen could not take him seriously for the life of him, sat scowling now to his right, his distaste for Jorgen palpable.
A grossly incongruous plastic log, covered in plastic holly and plastic candles, sat in the middle of the table. It was a semi-ironic attempt on the part of his mother to conjure some semblance of Scan- dinavian tradition; though devout atheists, the family was nonetheless intrigued by the rituals their forebears had concocted to celebrate the 25th, and Yule seemed like a fitting decoy banner under which to ex- change gifts in the way of good Americans. It was a stupid custom to transfer to Florida, Stephen thought, one that ignored the link between cultural practice and locality. And Jonas was a fucking anthropologist, or thought he was. Florida itself was entirely stupid. He couldn’t wait for his climbing trip to Wyoming, and turned his carabiner over and over in his left hand as Jorgen picked up one of the papers scattering the table.
What is this liberal crap? He said gruffly. Jonas had left his New York Times spread to a page on immigration reform and gun control, probably on purpose. Rather than start anything, as was his propensity, Jorgen wiped the back of his hand on the newsprint and returned to placidly sipping his can of Arizona. Stephen didn’t understand why his mother liked her brother enough to invite him to a bizarrely meta pseu- do-Christmas. Maybe she kept him as a link to her mom and dad, he thought, who hadn’t spoken to her since she went to become a Pinko at Brown on scholarship. Gifts had been exchanged the night before— Jonas had made some snorted comments about capitalism’s charms— and Stephen and Jonas were now being forced by their mother to sit in the kitchen across from Jorgen and his most recent floozy, keeping them company before their flight at 8 back to Minneapolis.
Jonas scrolled through his phone without much attempt to disguise it, his scorn-at-the-peasants practically coagulating in the air. Loretta tried to make conversation. Her cheap purple lipstick had wan- dered beyond the edges of her mouth, and she reapplied a layer of white to her teeth with a Colgate pen before grinning at Stephen’s mother.
I love your house, Elke, she said. This had been her opening line the last time she came to Jacksonville as well. I love your drapes. They’re so, I dunno, classy. My place just has these old dirty blinds, and the homeless guys keep looking in when I have my top off. But you know,
I like your chairs best. Your chairs are so comfy, where the hell do you get such comfy chairs? The ones that lean backwards, it’s like having a cloud under your ass. She shifted her orange-tinted rubber band leg on Jorgen’s lap and tested her stomach with an index finger. Jorgen’s dick stood at attention as he took another gulp from the Arizona can.
Elke smiled tolerantly. Thanks, Loretta, she said. How’s mom? She asked, turning to Jorgen. Jorgen took another swig. Stephen wasn’t sure whether he had spiked his can with Johnnie Walker. Jorgen would drink antifreeze if someone added a dash of Red Label to it.
Iunno. I haven’t talked to her. Not since the meth thing. He shrugged. Loretta ran a hand over his Schwarzenegger buzz-cut. Jorgen turned suddenly to Jonas. And what sort of crap have you been doing lately?
Jonas’s condescension was asphyxiating. I’m at grad school, he said. I’m writing. And researching.
School, grumbled Jorgen. “Advanced studies.” Grad school’s just an extension of school where you assign yourself your own fucking homework. It’s madness.
At this point, the sun came out from behind a sheet of cloud that had persisted all morning. Stephen and Jonas exchanged glances, then exploded into uncontrollable laughter. Loretta had a tendency to emit pleas during sex that Jorgen make her sun shine, something they had the misfortune to overhear once, and a request they found weirdly reminiscent of gospel choir refrains. Elke gave them both a look.
My nephews turned out to be a real bunch of fuckers, Jorgen said wearily. He tapped two Kools out of the pack, placing one in Loretta’s parted lips with two fingers, then biting down on his own before bringing out his Playboy anniversary-edition Zippo. Stephen watched the cigarette travel up and down from Loretta’s smeared harlot mouth, suddenly unsure of himself. She grinned, winking, and he threw his eyes up towards the ceiling.
C’mon, sweetheart, the plane’s gonna leave, Jorgen said, staggering out of his chair and cupping Loretta’s ass. Loretta rolled
her bootleg Louis Vuitton suitcase to the door, her hips flying back
and forth. Jorgen kissed Elke on the cheek, leaving the door open as
he crossed the threshold. He turned around and looked straight at Stephen. I don’t want you becoming like your big-talking brother over here, he said. I don’t want you wearing man tank tops and watching bike races like it’s a sport, or reading books until your eyes roll out of your head and you can’t look at ass anymore. You have a chance not to
barter your balls. He stepped outside, following Loretta’s uninhibitedly swinging rear past the gator trap and to a battered Ford the color of sunburn and dried blood.