excerpt > Kevin Allardice > Family Genus Species
She wants to set it down on what she expected to be a mountain of other gifts—a mountain so big it would be going avalanchey with abundance—all those presents in glossy wrapping paper of pastels and neons: bright beribboned things, she imagined.
The wrapping paper on the gift she’s brought, on the other hand, is not the garish birthday-splash kind of wrapping paper. The guy at the toy store who wrapped it for her, he gave her the option of those papers––one with rubbery but flat characters she could almost recognize from cartoons Vlad watches when he’s stoned––but she opted for a paper with tasteful paisley, figured Charlie would appreciate the amoeba-like patterns. After all, Vee’s sister, Pam, Charlie’s mother, told her Charlie is interested in science. “Oh,” Vee said, “he’s just like me!” And Pam scoffed, said, “Let’s hope not,” then said Charlie will surely major in one of the STEM fields one day at Penn or maybe Brown (Pam and Geoff have already ruled out the top tier Ivies after Charlie’s pre-K tests).
So Vee just wants to know where to set the gift down, but, wandering her sister’s backyard—a sprawling urban farm whose layout of garden beds seems designed to frustrate—she finds no pile of presents.
None at all.
She sees only loose scrambles of small children, from diaper-age to first grade, skittering through the yard. Screaming or squealing, she can’t be sure.
She finds a man standing with a beer at an intersection of kale, arugula, and what appears to be either a cabbage plant or a prop from Little Shop of Horrors. The man is wearing a backpack, a backpack made to look dude-friendly but is clearly a diaper bag, its straps buckled over a belly he’s trying to hold in muscular poise.
“Scuse me,” she says, “where does this go?” She holds up the present.
He looks her over. She’s suddenly aware of her army surplus jacket, its baggy obscuring of her body. He returns his gaze to the fruit trees in the distance. “I dunno. My wife said we weren’t bringing one, so.”
“Where’re those?” She nods toward his beer.
The man looks at the bottle as if surprised by its appearance in his hand. “Think there’s a cooler maybe up near the turnips?”
“Where are the turnips?”
“Or radishes, maybe? I dunno the difference.”
Vee walks toward where he seemed to have gestured in his vague way, walks into the increasingly dense and overgrown farm, holding the present Magi-at-the-manger-like. She holds it delicately not because its content is delicate but because she heard it jostling around on the bumpy drive over and she wants to make sure that it’s right-side-up when Charlie opens it. It’s a dinosaur, an amphicoelias, often mistaken for a brontosaurus, but so much more massive. This one, though, the one in the box, is about a foot long, plastic––or, rather, acrylic lucite.
She can hear the cheers of children coming in waves from a little glen just down from the apple trees.
The Family Farm, as Pam and Geoff have dubbed their backyard, began as an empty lot behind their house. When Vee first visited, Pam looked out the window at the lot and made a few joking-but-probably-not comments about seeing derelicts in the trees. This was when the cops had begun clearing out camps of homeless, an ongoing game of Whack-A-Mole, the homeless then popping up in another habitable area that the cops would soon clear, and so on, and so Pam’s lobbying Geoff to buy up that half-acre lot and farm the shit out of it as an extended backyard, properly fenced-in, didn’t seem to be entirely out of horticultural passion.
The yard, The Family Farm, starts close to the house with a modest patch of microgreens, then quickly escalates, sloping up to one side, up to where highland crops like chard and sunflowers and big anonymous leafy things dominate, then retreats back away from the house into a dense cluster of fruit trees, cleft by this glen that looks like it has been carved by a river but surely is just a trick of landscaping. There’s a chicken coop somewhere, though she can’t see it. Much of the yard she can’t see; it seems designed to hide itself, jutting out from Pam and Geoff’s California bungalow. Or at least she’s always had that impression; she can’t actually see its borders. She keeps heading toward the trees, the highland beyond. An eddy of children swirl around her feet, almost knock her down. She searches them for towheaded Charlie, but all their heads are shades of tow, the whole of Pam’s social circle blindingly white.
One child stops while the rest scurry off. He clings to her leg, leans against it like it’s a lamppost, to catch his breath.
“Hi,” she says.
The boy looks up, slightly annoyed that this lamppost is alive.
“Do you know where Charlie is? I have a birthday present for him.” She hears the tone of her voice; she hears how, without meaning to, she’s slipped up an octave, a bit bouncy but still gentle. She sounded in that moment like her old roommate the poet did at coffee house readings, all of a sudden the owner of a new voice more fit to the Teletubbies’ universe than this one.
The boy, perhaps frightened, runs away.
Vee’s bra is hurting her. Underwire must have been invented at Guantanamo. She hates her sweat. With boobs and belly, she always sweats through T-shirts in disturbingly facial patterns, her shirts always looking like nightmares of clown faces. Not the best look for a child’s birthday party.
She’s walking, present in hand, toward a pocket of kid-noise, over to where the guy with the backpack seemed to have been pointing—radish territory, or turnip. She’s not entirely sure either. Even though her knowledge of veg-life is based entirely on her year-long stint waiting tables in one of those rustic farm-to-face eateries, some of the things Pam and Geoff grow here she’s totally clueless on. Some of this flora seems like it belongs more in Jurassic Park than in North Berkeley. Leaves the size of her face. Flowers that look sentient.
That Pam inherited their mom’s green thumb has always been something of a thing. In college, Pam once said that she was the “producer of food-commodity, while you, Colleen, are the consumer,” basically a Marxist fat joke. Now, Pam only brings up her green thumb as a burden, the burden of bearing not just the bountiful womb but the bountiful garden as well. So many obligations, and without her so many things would wither—right, as if the bitch’s teat supplies the seven seas. Besides, Pam’s are b-cups at best, the bulimic.
Vee finds a little girl standing by herself near the louche plumage of Pam and Geoff’s lettuce. Her blonde hair is in a French braid and she is just staring into the air, her limbs and face faintly animated like those of someone deep in dream, doing nothing in that way kids have that seems so active and full, like she’s deep in some philosophical debate with an imaginary friend.
Vee stands at a safe distance, as if afraid to wake a sleepwalker. “Scuse me, little girl. Have you seen Charlie?”
The girl turns and eyes Vee’s shoes.
“Where’s the birthday boy?” Vee asks.
“What color are your shoes?” the girl asks.
Vee looks down. She’s wearing the white Chuck Taylors she Magic-Markered into a splotchy black one insomniac night last month. “They’re… black and white.” The girl finally looks up at Vee. “Did you scribble on them?”
The girl eyes the present. “Is that for me?”
“No,” Vee says. “But you know who it is for?”
“It’s for Charlie!” Vee says, hearing her voice do the thing again, this time with even more maniacal glee. “The birthday boy!”
The girl suddenly looks like she’s just been scolded, and yes, perhaps Vee’s awareness of her own demented-clown timbre only kicked it up a frightening notch rather than tempering it.
The girl’s chin starts to quiver, her eyes get glassy. Now Vee’s on damage control. She crouches down, sets the present beside her. This she can do—it has an explicit goal: keep all teary material from breaching lid or lash.
Saying one word to these kids, it’s like leaning against a stranger’s Mercedes without the alarm going off. Keeping them from going off, attracting the ire and scorn from these helicopter bitches here, it takes finesse. Vee has finesse; Vlad said so.
“There, there,” she says. “There, there.” She hugs the child, pats her back. “It’s okay.” The child does not hug back; she remains, stubbornly and stickly, still. Perhaps Vee’s initiation of physical contact was misguided. Perhaps she’s doing something wrong with this child. She lets go, leans back. The girl’s crying situation hasn’t technically breached, but some of her lashes are clumped together and beaded by single drops that could, at any second, fall.
“Are you okay?”
“Is that present for me?”
Vee lifts her sleeve to the girl’s eyes—she doesn’t flinch—and lets the fabric absorb the threatening tears.
“Your hair looks so pretty,” Vee says. “How do you get it to do that?”
“It’s very cool.”
“Can I have the present?”
“Tell you what,” Vee says. “If you help me find Charlie, I can get you an even better gift.”
“Let me see it first.”
“You want to see it?”
Vee fishes around in the pocket of her Army surplus jacket, hoping to find some loose cash. Kids love cash. When Vee was nine, she horded dollar bills in a rubber-banded stack under her mattress. She’d seen countless movies in which stacks of cash like this were objects of criminal desire. She didn’t care for the money’s extrinsic purchasing power; rather, she thought of paper money as possessing a purely intrinsic value of an almost mystical potency. With cash, as Vlad has pointed out, becoming increasingly less concrete and more abstract, mere ones and zeros on a bank’s computer screen, it might actually be kind of wonderful to see this child here imbue some simple crumpled up dollar bills with that old magic again. So—despite Vlad’s continued admonishment of adults who resort to bribery with children, despite his avowal that when they have kids they’ll never do that—right?—because they’ll be cool parents, and despite the ovarian twitch of terror and joy and God-knows what other primitive procreative shit Vee felt when he mentioned the two of them having kids—she fishes for dollars in the pocket of her Army surplus jacket.
She doesn’t, however, find any cash.
Instead, her fingers wrap around the blown-glass one-hitter, still warm from the hit she took in the car before coming into the party.
“Well?” the girl says.
Vee takes the little glass pipe out of her pocket and holds it up.
The girl seems transfixed, her mouth agape like Vee were holding an Oreo an inch from her mouth. “It’s beautiful,” she says.
And it is. Smooth and bulbous at one end, patterned with a swirl of glistening granite, striped with a deep malachite green, it looks like a small alien’s penis. Vee bought it for five bucks on Telegraph sometime in high school, and in anxious moments often rubs it in her pocket like a worry stone.
The girl reaches for the pipe and Vee pulls it away. “Only if you help me find Charlie.”
The girl tightens her lips, clenches her face into a look of resolve. She turns around with militant precision, and starts marching. Vee follows.
They pass by bushes the size of discontinued Eastern European cars that smell oddly like massage oil. They pass large brown paper bags filled with clippings and dead leaves. They pass a fresh, unplanted garden bed filled with a dark loam of fertilizer and mulch and what Vee recognizes, or thinks she recognizes, as corners of biodegradable diapers emerging from the soil like shark fins from water. But surely Charlie is shitting like an adult by now, right?
The girl is getting faster. When Vee turns a corner, she only sees the end of the girl’s braid disappearing around the next corner of aggressive flora. Vee breaks into a trot to keep up, to catch up, but then she stops, because of her boobs. She worries they look like speedbags when she runs.
The girl’s now entirely out of sight. Vee hears a scuffling of shoes with a kid-like rhythm on the other side of this freakish bush here with canoe-shaped leaves, but it turns out to be some totally other kid, a boy sucking on his lower lip and tugging—exploratorily but determinedly—at his pecker through his shorts. Vee asks him, “You seen a girl run by here with a French braid?”
The boy shakes his head and continues his tugging, to which Vee leaves him.
That quick little sprint has winded her. She couldn’t even say a simple sentence to that boy without stopping every few words for air.
She needs some water.
The cooler by the turnips, or radishes, is full of fancy beer, a microbrew whose label has a steampunk sensibility. Vee puts the present down by her feet so she can open a bottle with the church-key yarned to the cooler. She takes a drink. The booze boasts notes of pinecones and patchouli.
The dad with the backpack walks up, aerodynamic sunglasses now giving his face a Terminator-ish look.
“One of these ankle-biters yours?” the man asks.
“Charlie,” Vee says.
One of the man’s eyebrows crests over his Oakleys.
“I’m his aunt.”
Now the other eyebrow goes up.
“Oh,” the man says, lowering his eyebrows. “I hear a bunch about another sister, Colleen, down in Oakland.”
“West Oakland, yeah.”
“Pam was nervous she’d show up. Or that’s what my wife said. What’s her deal?” The man thumbs up the brim of his hat; its yellow fabric has grown a green crown of sweat.
“Want a beer?” Vee says.
She pulls a second bottle from the cooler, melty ice-bits sliding down its neck, opens it. She tries to hand him the beer, but he says, “Hold on.” He unloops one shoulder of his backpack, unvelcroes a compartment built to hold a pack of baby-wipes. He pulls out one baby-wipe, and a new one flowers up in its place. He wipes his hands clean, then pulls a Ziploc baggie from his pocket, puts the used wipe inside, zippers it shut, and puts it back into his pocket.
Then he says, “Name’s Floyd,” and holds out his hand.
Vee shakes his hand and instantly realizes he was holding it out to accept the beer. She takes her hand back and gives him the beer.
A woman walks up in hair fit for a yacht club, nicotine tan and velveteen jumper. “Floyd,” she says, “where’s Skylar’s toque? There’s a chill and it’s getting cold tonight.”
She begins rustling through Floyd’s backpack. He doesn’t seem to pay much attention, like a pack horse.
“You look knowledgeable,” Vee says to the woman.
The woman huffs. “I better be.”
“Do you know where I can put my present? For Charlie? Or do you know where he is?”
She finds the toque, pulls it out. It looks like one of the Wicked Witch’s stockings. “This isn’t a present party, honey. And Charlie? I think I saw him over by the nopales.”
“What are nopales?”
“They’re near the salsify bush.”
Beer in one hand, present lodged under her other arm, Vee wanders away in an uncommitted direction.
She sees the tree-house, and the edge of the fruit-tree district, and heads toward it. It’s the tree-house she herself built four years ago, just before Charlie was born. But she built it on a feeble cottonwood tree—the largest tree they had on the property at that point, before they imported all these large, load-bearing oaks with their gnarled muscly roots—and the resulting tree-house is less a residence, less the Swiss-Family-Robinson-style chalet she’d imagined, and more a simple platform, about four feet by four feet, big enough only for one person to sit, solo.
Pam is standing under the tree-house.
“Charlie play on that much?” Vee asks.
Pam looks up from her phone, sees Vee and makes a face: a smile or smelling something strange, you can never tell with Pam. She says, “Hiya.”
Vee hugs Pam, but Pam’s phone-holding hand gets caught, bent T-Rex-like between the sisters’ bodies.
“Where’s the birthday boy?”
“We don’t let him up there,” Pam says. “It doesn’t seem stable. Geoff wants to take it down.”
“Where should I put this?” Vee holds up the present.
“Besides, there’re nails sticking out up there. Tetanus. Lockjaw.”
“Where should I put my gift? For Charlie?”
Pam says, “Um, Colleen, we said no gifts? In the invite? Big as can be? Did you not see it?”
“What? Why? Where’s Charlie? My name is Vee now. Not Colleen.”
A small child, one of the not-Charlies, runs by cradling a chicken in his arms, the animal’s feathery head twitching nervously.
“Hey!” Pam shouts with sudden anger, at Vee or at the kid it’s momentarily unclear. “Declan! Come back here, Declan! Put Roosevelt down!”
The kid tries to scurry into a garden bed of unidentifiable flora, but he trips. He lands on Roosevelt and the chicken lets out a chilling squawk, and the kid’s butt—red shorts hiding crinkling diapers—is left sticking skyward. Pam grabs the boy by the waist, pulls him off Roosevelt. The chicken runs into the wilderness.
“Geoff and I made it clear at Christmas,” Pam shouts back at Vee while slapping the dirt off the boy’s shirt. “No gifts. We want Charlie to understand that the real gifts are family, friends, and fellowship, not gross material possessions.” She points the child away, swats his butt, and he runs off. “Besides, Geoff and I provide him with whatever he wants anyway. Really, Colleen, we made it very clear in the Evite. Don’t you read?”
The tinselly ribbon on the gift reflects the sunlight, making flashes in Vee’s peripheral vision like she has another detached retina.
“My name’s Vee now.”
“No it’s not.”
“It is,” she says. “Legally.”
“Colleen, you’ve never done anything legally.” Pam begins, or continues, to do something on her phone, scrolling her thumbs against the screen as if massaging the thing. “Where’s Charlie?”
Pam looks up annoyed. “Colleen. I’m really stressed out right now. The protests downtown? I have CitiWatch to update, while running this party. I should be an octopus for all the arms I need right now. So can you just answer your questions on your own, thanks.”
Pam stomps off.
Vee feels hyperventilative again, now without the inconvenience of running. She guzzles the rest of her beer, lets out a painful and heartburn-spiced burp. She pushes her thumb into the mouth of the bottle until it hurts. She wishes she had Vlad’s extroverted sense for destruction, could just throw a bottle against a wall and feel exorcised of all shit. Instead, she just keeps pushing her thumb knuckle in until it feels like something, bone or bottle, will break.
She pulls her thumb out and the tip is purple, ringed painfully at the knuckle in white. She tosses the bottle into a plumage of swiss chard, then panics that there might be some kid hiding there to get knocked in the head by her carelessness. She can’t even throw a bottle right, not without having an aneurysm of guilt about the poor bottle’s feelings.
Back up in the turnip or radish clearing, Floyd is still standing beside the cooler, now with his backpack unzipped, slackly letting diapers and sweaters flap in the wind.
Vee sets the present down and grabs a second beer.
“How much do you think these things cost?” she asks Floyd.
“Thirty-five-something for a case,” Floyd says.
“That’s remarkably specific.”
“We brought ’em. Made a Costco run on the way. Got five pounds of frozen tortellini defrosting in the trunk.”
“Your wife said it’s getting cold.”
“Yeah, well, she sleeps with tube socks on her hands in ninety-degree weather.”
Vee starts in on the second beer, taking big frothy mouthfuls that feel like they continue to froth in her stomach.
“Slow down there,” Floyd says.
Thirty-five-something for a case of twenty-four beers, plus CRV, means, what, around a buck-fifty per?
“I can’t,” she says. “I need to drink twenty-two ninety-five worth of beer.”
Floyd nods. “Gotcha.”
“Fuck acrylic lucite,” Vee says.
Floyd looks away. “That’s what I always say.”
That kid, what’s his name, Declan, the same one who tried to kidnap Roosevelt—or maybe this is a different kid but same make and model—is suddenly rooting around Vee’s feet. Just as Vee registers the kid’s identity, he grabs the gift and runs off, so simply, into the controlled wild of his sister’s absurd backyard, gone.
Vee shouts—a vowely something, gurgley with beer, or perhaps a simple choking sound. Then, foaming bottle in hand, she runs after, boob-show be damned.
The path is brier-clotted and the boy’s Keds kick up dirt and dust like a smokescreen of diesel exhaust. Vee’s foot catches on the half-buried wood slat of a garden bed’s border, and she plants face-first into some hard vegetable. She feels a bristly something scraping her belly where her shirt has hitched up and her sleeve is now soaked with beer. She landed, she sees now, in a broccoli plant. The veggie isn’t as soft as she expected it to be, and she realizes it has been a while since she’s had it any way other than steamed and covered in cheddar.
There’s the sound of kid-laughter around her, many kids, all reveling in that sociopathic part of their development. It’s a horrible, discordant clang, the laughter more an aggressive communication of dominance than a genuine bubbling up of pleasure.
By the time she stands up the gang is already running off, only their conical party hats visible over the vegetation.
That guy at the toy store yesterday, a college-age kid, suggested a toy marked “2 - 4 yrs.” He was one of these skinny boys whose sweater-vest and thick-rimmed glasses only function to make his devastating good looks seem accidental.
He asked, “Who’s this for?”
She said she wanted to get her nephew a birthday gift, one that she could play with too. “We have similar sensibilities, him and I.”
He chuckled, adjusted his frames. “That’s funny.” His smile went from the head-on variety of customer service to the oblique, head-cocked variety of flirtation. “So you play with him a lot?”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “We’re very close.”
“And what sort of things does he like?”
She hates those questions. They’re impossible. Like the question that used to be on her online dating profile that asked her what she liked to do for fun. Who knew how to answer that? Everything always sounds false. Online, she’d left that question, and others, blank, in part hoping to normalize the blankness of her employment status, but here, with a real live person, she had to come up with something.
“He likes pooping, mostly.”
The toy store boy laughed again.
“And he,” she said, “you know, likes to gum things.”
“But you said he’s turning four––wouldn’t he be done teething by now?”
Maybe. Charlie could also be out of diapers by now. But it still counted as a good joke. She’d had a good four seconds of flirtation––or what she considered flirtation. Why’d he have to ruin it by being so literal minded? She had to more clearly establish joke territory. “Well, you certainly seem pretty concerned about teething. Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got good technique—all lips and tongue.”
In the moment it took for his face to register the joke, she panicked, worried that she’d just sexually harassed the guy. But then he smiled, chortled, and said, “Yes, well.” He finished the sentence by needlessly adjusting his frames again.
It’s not that she was attracted to him—or rather, she was attracted to him, but that wasn’t why she’d attempted any sort of flirtation, no matter how maniacal it came out. She was just tired of how pretty boys like this always tolerate big girls with a smile, how they can confidently throw a scrap of flirt her way as if it’s charity—yes, good for you, pat on the back—because to them a fat chick is never a sexual possibility, is always and completely unthreatening.
This bit of sexual aggression wasn’t a betrayal of Vlad; it was an assault on this kid’s skinny privilege.
Fuck it: “But I only go quid pro quo, so I hope you got good tongue technique.” She winked. His face went flat and either he raised his shoulders or sunk slightly into them as if into a turtle shell. “I think someone’s at the front counter. Just give a call if you need anything else.”
He simpered off.
And that’s when she saw it, the dinosaur, the amphicoelias, on an endcap shelf otherwise littered with plush pugs. The noble beast of the Late Jurassic misplaced amongst the genetic freaks of Late Capitalism. She walked over and picked up the amphicoelias, the subtle curve of its long body. It had a nice heft to it, smooth, about the length of her forearm. She’s always loved dinosaurs, all kinds, but the amphicoelias, it was her favorite. Often mistaken for brontosauruses because of their shape, but she knew. As a kid, she’d memorized the amphicoelias’s classifications, the whole deal—family, genus, species––but most impressive was their sheer size—incomprehensible—an average of a hundred and forty tons, from nose to tail-tip stretching two-thirds of a football field, so huge that to truly contemplate it had been to get a terrifying lesson in scale, to realize the smallness of her own hundred-pound existence. She had since more than doubled that poundage, but standing now in the toy store, holding the quarter-pound plastic model, she still felt a pang of insignificance, the odd comfort of that, and she surprised herself by still being able to reel off the dinosaur’s classifications, a melody forever crinkled into her frontal cortex.
During her year of college, she’d spent many nights getting high with the amphicoelias skeleton mounted outside the Vertebrate Lab Museum. She would climb over the cable fence and position herself lotus-legged below the cage of the creature’s ribs, a Jonah who had no intention of escaping the beast’s belly. Above, the glass-shard glimmer in the sky’s dense fabric was barred by the creature’s ribs, everything––stars and bone—exposed in opalescent conversation.
“That’s five and up,” the toy store guy said when she brought the dinosaur up to the counter. He was intensely scrutinizing the cash register and the toy’s tag to avoid eye contact.
She looked at the tag. “Twenty-two dollars?”
“Well, it is acrylic lucite,” the guy said. “But really, this is for ages five and up. Choking hazard.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “How could anyone choke on this?”
One night in college, she showed up and found a small gang of students already squatting in her spot, gathered around a case of Keystone Light. They had flashlights, flared them around like lightsabers. One saw her, called out with an invitation that was ostensibly nice but had a definite suwee tone. She knew that tone. She took off, up into the hills, clutching her glass-blown pipe in her hoodie’s kangaroo pocket. A short hike up, hidden and barbed off by bushes, there was a bluff where a small tributary ran thin like cellophane over the rocks. She followed it to a lagoon populated by large, carbuncular rock formations. To one side, she could see the overwhelming expanse of the Pacific, the moonlight moving on the waves like stars come to life. In the other direction, she had a view of the small cityscape, which had been growing this past year like a losing game of Tetris. The lagoon had the appearance of something untouched by anything human, but it was surely just another lab for tagging and testing. In the morning, students would arrive, take samples, catalogue.
Kevin Allardice is the author of the novel Any Resemblance to Actual Persons (Counterpoint, 2014). He was born in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Berkeley, California. Learn more about Family Genus Species.
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