portion of the artwork for Faith Gardner's fiction

Lucky Beneficiary
Faith Gardner

My brother O and I hated mom’s new guy Tad.

Tad.

He rode a scooter to work at the phone bank and smoked spliffs in the kitchen.

He wore leather flipflops and his cracked feet were years-caked with dust.

His favorite band was the Rolling Stones and he called them “The Stones.”

Tad.

O was two years older than me, big and thick as a tree; he would have been a jock except his grades were too ugly for sports; he preferred beer, mountain bikes, and heavy metal music.

When Tad came along, there was a brief period where O and I seemed to have something in common.

Hatred can be a kind of human glue.

Mom worked at the phone bank too, double shifts, and when she got home she didn’t have time for our “shenanigans.”

“Shenanigans” can mean pretty much anything.

Saying zing and shooting her with an invisible gun counts as “shenanigans.”

Not buying TP is “shenanigans.”

Practicing being a human beatbox, playing air drums: “shenanigans.”

Tad came home with her each night, carrying his silver fold-up scooter inside.

“’Sup my bros,” he said when he saw us.

I told him “sup my bros” could be interpreted as cannibalistic and also fratricidal.

Tad had long eyelashes like falsies and a gunny laugh, he he he, and he laughed whenever he didn’t understand something, which seemed to be often.

Douche, O would cough into his hand during family frozen-pizza hour. Tad. Douche.

Tad never seemed to notice.

Sometimes my mother kicked us under the table with her pointy, witchy boot.

One time, when Tad was out practicing scooter tricks in the front yard, O and I confronted Mom with an ultimatum.

It didn’t go so well.

To paraphrase, we were like, if you don’t stop seeing Tad, we’re going to go live with Dad.

It sounded lame out loud, Dr. Seuss-ish.

Fine, she said. Have fun.

She took the pizza cutter and cut off the friendship bracelet I had given her and didn’t blink.

There was a splotch of pizza sauce on her wrist and my pulse hiccupped for a moment because I thought it was blood.

The bracelet sat there on the table, dumb memento.

Fine, O and I said.

It was summer.

We packed our clothes in gym bags and Mom drove us to the bus station.

* * *

We hadn’t seen Dad in more than three years. We were supposed to visit for a couple weeks every summer, but there was always some excuse. Three years ago one of Dad’s alligators was loose in the neighborhood and it was a pretty big deal. A toddler lost her hand and the alligator farm went under soon after that. The next year he was meditating with Thai monks. And last year he was getting his candle business off the ground. He had just bought the house in Mendocino. Mom lived in Stockton, which was close now, closer than Burlington or Seattle or Boise or Amsterdam or anywhere else Dad had lived. It was just six hours on a Greyhound bus. The drive was all tall trees and highway bleeding. O didn’t want to talk. He spent the whole ride on his phone, some video game with a worm in it. My anger for my mother was a bad taste in my head. I wondered what kind of man my Dad was these days.

* * *

He didn’t have a beard anymore and he wore ironed, button-up shirts and his hair was gelled.

“Hi, boys,” he said, standing between us, spreading his arms out, clapping us on the backs.

“You look weird,” said O.

“Officious,” I said.

“Look at you and your twenty dollar words,” Dad said.

He had a car waiting at the curb.

We had to sit in the back because there was a box on the passenger’s seat.

The box was closed but I could see a tiny steeple pushing up in the square space in the middle between the four flaps.

“You drive now?” O asked.

Dad clipped his seatbelt. “I’ve always driven, O. I just never owned a car.”

“Can you teach me to drive?” O asked.

“It’s a rental. I have to give it back tonight,” Dad said.

He turned up the classical music and O and I exchanged a look.

“Someday I want to teach myself the violin,” Dad said, and hummed along to the song in a falsetto, I guess what he thought a violin would sound like.

The song was all piano.

“Boonies,” said O, staring out the window.

“I can hear myself think,” Dad said.

“How are the candles?” I asked.

“The candles are OK,” Dad said after a second, which made me think he was halfway over them already.

“You just started the business,” said O.

“What? I said, candles are OK.” He squeezed the steering wheel. “Just me and the candles.”

Another look exchanged between O and I.

“Yup. Solitude’s a man’s best friend. But, that said, good to have my boys back. Did I already mention you look bigger? Especially you, O. You’re a manboy now.” He eyed me in the rearview. “You’ll be a manboy soon enough.” He turned down the music. “How’s your mom?”

“She’s good,” O and I said, eerily, at once.

“Good! Good to know she’s good. Anything different?”

Two heads shaking.

“Any new beaus?” he asked cheerfully.

O flapped his hand and went “uh, Dad, uh” because there was a flock of turkeys sitting in the road ahead.

“I see them,” Dad said, and slammed the brakes so hard they screamed.

The turkeys jutted their heads forward and kind of drunk-stumbled through the mud, leaving a few feathers.

“Mmm, turkey,” said O.

“I’m vegan now,” Dad said, speeding up again.

“What’s that?” O asked.

“He doesn’t eat meat or dairy,” I whispered.

O shut his eyes and shook his head.

“Oh, I sure love beans, these days,” Dad said. “Bean soup, bean salad, beans with rice. Lima beans, kidney beans, black beans, refried beans. Pinto, of course. Sometimes fava. Navy. White. There are thousands of kinds of beans in the world, did you know that? Literally. Thousands.”

He pulled into a muddy driveway in front of a tree-circled cottage with a porch swing and three bleached plastic flamingos stabbed in the slightly overgrown lawn.

“Wow, Dad, this is nice,” O said, getting out of the car.

“It’s almost landscaped,” I said.

“Where’s all your junk?” O asked.

“I’ve been junk-free for three years now,” Dad said.

He stared at his lawn, smiling.

His lips looked thin now, like muppety or something, without his beard.

There was a red stain on his khaki pants, near his crotch.

“You have a stain,” I said, and pointed.

He looked down.

“Goddamn it all to fucking hell,” he said.

He led us inside and didn’t offer to help us with our gym bags, though I don’t know why he would.

Mom would do that probably.

Mom still did our laundry.

Dad probably wouldn’t do our laundry.

The inside of the cottage was clean, but dusty.

Dad had to move a bunch of boxes of wicks and jars to the floor for us to sit on the couch.

Everything smelled candy sweet, fake fruity.

O kept sneezing.

“It’s the dust,” Dad said.

He squeezed between us on the couch.

“Gosh, I’ve missed you,” he said.

We mumbled something similar.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long. Has it really been three years?”

“Almost four,” O said quickly.

“Your mother was kind of forceful on the phone. Said you missed that paternal presence in your life. She said you had to come now, like, father-son emergency.”

O had mentally exited the building already.

His face was blank, his eyes, glazed over, pointed out the window.

“We’re OK,” I said.

“What’s your mother look like these days? She won’t let me friend her on Facebook. Google images only shows pictures from years back. Is her hair still short?”

“It’s long now,” I said.

“Any new beaus?” Dad asked, scratching his beardless face.

O stood up. “Can we see where we’re sleeping?”

Dad led us up a narrow staircase into the attic. The roof was triangular. There was a futon and a dresser and a lot of boxes.

“I’m really surprised at how neat this is,” O said. “And no pets?”

“Crocodilians are illegal in California,” Dad said sadly.

“ Why is there only one futon?” I asked.

“It’s a queen,” Dad said. He jingled his keys in the air. “I’m going to take the car back to the rental place while it’s still light out. I’ll bring dinner home.”

“Can I come with you?” I asked.

“Best to keep Orinthal here company,” Dad said.

“That’s not my name,” O said loudly.

“ Gosh, look at my sons,” Dad said. “I feel so lucky.”

He stubbed his toe on the door jamb on his way out and yelled, “Fuck me to hell.”

We heard his car drive away.

“This is all your fault,” said O.

“Not.”

“I didn’t even know what an ultimate matim was.”

“Don’t blame me because you’re stupid.”

“I’ll whoop your nerdy ass.”

I shrugged.

O was lazy.

He talked about violence but he had never once acted on it.

“You’re sleeping on the floor,” he said, and spread out like a snow angel on the futon.

I didn’t protest.

He pointed to the ceiling. “Nasty.”

There was a skylight.

“Look at that graveyard of dead bugs up here,” he said. “That soup of crusty dead bugs.”

I came and sat next to him on the futon and looked up.

There were curled brown bodies of potato bugs snug between decaying leaves.

“Do you think ‘Tad’ is short for something?” he asked.

“Like ‘Tadpole’?”

“Maybe.”

“The word ‘Tad’ means a small amount,” I told him.

O nodded and raised his bushy brows.

“Do you think Dad’s drinking these days?” O asked.

“I would guess not, but you never know.”

“Let’s poke around,” O said.

He got up and went to the doorway.

I took one more glance upwards, to the graveyard soup of bugs, and wondered if that was a not-unpleasant place to die.

Then I followed O.

* * *

First, the kitchen: we opened the refrigerator and commented on the sad spaciousness inside; the whiteness, the one tub of margarine and expired veganaisse and empty-looking bottle of ketchup. The cupboards were mostly bare as well, save for about six pounds of beans in burlap sacks on the floor. He wasn’t kidding about beans. I heard O’s stomach grumble and he said, Oh man. It was Friday, which was fried-chicken-in-a-bucket night at Mom’s. There was no liquor anywhere. O stared out the window above the sink at a lemon rubbing its belly on the pane and I thought he was going to cry. But then he said maybe Dad had some fun pills.

We had to snake through the dining room—a haven of wicks and vats, shelves of drying candles, dye-splattered drop cloths and wax-smeared newspapers—to get to Dad’s bedroom, which was a shockingly spare blue room with a framed alligator portrait on the wall, a round window, and a twin bed, and through there, we found the bathroom. O opened the medicine cabinet and took out each thing and made a comment. “Anti-fungal ointment—whatever he’s got better not be contagious.” “Pink razors? Aren’t these the same ones Mom uses on her legs?” “Mr. Strawberry Toothpaste, for 8-12 year olds. Jesus H.” No pills. None at all. Not even a drop of cough syrup. I noted there were short curled hairs on the toilet seat and covering the tub, and O quieted.

We went outside and ate a few blackberries in the back yard. We sat in lawn chairs and watched the moon rise. “What if Dad never returned?” I asked. We walked out front to the road and couldn’t see any houses. There were no street lamps. No traffic sounds, either. Something hooted and we ran inside. O called Mom and she asked, “So, how do you boys like it out there?” O said we were having a gay old time. He liked to say that, “a gay old time,” he thought it gave people a good snicker. After he hung up he said he had heard “Honky Tonk Woman” playing loud in Mom’s background. “They’re probably at a bar,” he sighed.

We went down into the basement, pulled the light bulb on with a pop. There was a washer and dryer and a table and not much else. The table sat in the middle of the room. There were things glued to it. When we got closer, we saw it was astroturfed with fake grass and decorated with tiny plastic trees. There were miniature buildings here and there, fences and ponds, and even figurines. I picked one up and couldn’t make out any details—no face, no eyes, no hands. But somehow I still knew what it was, what it was supposed to be. A thumbnail-sized person.

* * *

Dad came home at nearly midnight with not-frozen-anymore Hungry Man dinners.

His hair looked blown around.

“Sorry,” he said. “Took me the longest time to hitch a ride.”

“Hitch?” O asked.

“As in, hike,” I said.

Dad stared at us wolfing Hungry Man dinners as we sat at the coffee table.

He said he had eaten a large serving of French fries in town.

“One thing vegans can eat is French fries,” he said. “I eat French fries when I’m out, beans when I’m at home. Let’s go to town tomorrow, boys.”

“Is there a mall?” asked O, spitting chicken nugget.

O never cared about certain rules, one of those rules being, don’t talk with your mouth open.

“No mall. It’s a small town. It’s unincorporated.”

Dad watched O shove another soggy nugget into his mouth.

“Did you know they keep chickens in little boxes, stacked on top of each other, and the chickens defecate on each other all day long? The same chickens you’re eating right now?” Dad asked.

“What’s defecate?” asked O.

“It means to shit,” I said.

O chewed his food and stared at the black window.

There wasn’t even anything to stare at.

Sometimes I could see my brother’s consciousness visibly drifting.

“I’m going to go downstairs,” Dad said.

He stood up and his stomach made absurd noises, wawawa.

“I’m building an exact replica of our little town,” he said.

He took the box he had had in the car with him earlier and went down the stairs.

I could tell it was the same box because that mini steeple was still poking out the top.

The sound of his feet were like, clop, clop. Pause. Clop, clop. Pause. Clop, clop.

“I really hate you,” O whispered.

He was still staring at the night-black window again so I didn’t take his statement personally.

I didn’t know who he hated.

I was tired and didn’t care.

We sat for a long time with empty plastic trays.

I heard Dad down in the basement growling, “You goddamn church, I glued you, you will stay put!”

O checked his phone again and breathed out through his nose.

* * *

The next day Dad took us into town. It involved walking down a road with no sidewalks for over an hour. O was sweating and panting. There were pissed-off-sounding birds above our heads. The shade was cool and almost had a smell. Dad told us not to touch any foliage because any and/or all of it might be poison oak. He also picked up trash he saw, a hamburger wrapper, an empty bag of sunflower seeds, a grubby baby shoe. By the time we finally got to town, he had a dirty armful he had to throw away in a dumpster in front of a hamburger stand. He didn’t wash his hands.

“This is where I ate French fries yesterday,” he said, pointing to the whitewashed shack with the piping chimney.

There was a fat woman staring at us from inside the open order window.

“Hi, Dolores,” Dad yelled.

Dolores didn’t wave back.

“I want a burger,” O said.

Dad kept walking and we followed.

“This is the hardware store,” Dad told us.

It still had Santa Claus and a kids’ train set in the window display.

“There’s the church,” Dad said.

We stopped and looked.

It was a white building with pigeons on the steps.

It had a steeple just like Dad’s tiny version.

“A cross up top,” Dad muttered. “Shit.”

“Are we going to have burgers?” O asked.

“I want you to see the park first,” Dad said.

The park was a square of mowed lawn.

A woman with frazzled hair was letting her dog pee on a tree there.

There was nothing to stare at, so I guess we were kind of staring.

“Give Speckles some privacy, creeps,” she said.

We walked on.

“ That’s Mrs. P,” Dad whispered. “She owns that grocery store over there.”

He pointed to a building that said GROCERY STORE.

“Mrs. P is a class-A "B," if you know what I’m saying,” Dad said.

“Dad,” O said. “Burgers.”

We walked back in the direction of the stand.

There were trees everywhere.

There were way more trees than people.

The air smelled clean and I counted five cars in the one parking lot.

I could kind of understand wanting to live in a place like this, but I could also understand completely losing my mind out here, too.

I wondered if O and I had stepped into a kind of backwards Wonderland where everyone except us was mental.

“Ever heard of Mad Cow Disease?” Dad asked, watching O and I eat our burgers.

When he waved goodbye to Dolores, she didn’t say anything.

“These goddamn people,” Dad said.

The walk home seemed longer, somehow.

I walked into the brush a couple times, hoping maybe for poison oak so I could be sent home.

* * *

That night, we followed Dad down into the basement. He showed us how everything he had built for the tiny town was proportionally correct. It was all measured and exact. Even the number of trees in between the buildings was accurate, he claimed. The white burger shack was there. He pointed at the miniature figurine inside it.

“Dolores,” he said. “You should be a little friendlier.” He moved a stray figurine into the park area. “Mrs. P,” he said. He moved another beside her. “I don’t have any dogs yet, so this will represent her dog.” He told it, “Mrs. P, don’t be such a BITCH.” When he yelled he got his mouth all close to the table.

O and I exchanged a look.

“And who could forget my sons,” Dad said, moving two figurines to a house on the end of the table that sat by itself. “My dear sweet sons.” He stared at it. There were three figurines on the microscopic porch steps now. “We should invite your mom to join us.” He added another. “What’s up, Cheryl? Dig the new home?”

O yawned.

“What, is this boring you?” Dad asked. It was midnight. “Watch, we can make it fun. We can make it rain.” He grabbed a water glass and sprinkled some water over the house, the church, the shack, the trees. “Serious downpour, watch this.” He poured a bit on the teensy building labeled GROCERY. The roof fell in. “Too much!” he yelled.

He stood up and shook his head at us. “Goddamn everything to hell. Now I’m going to have to special order a goddamn roof tomorrow and it’ll be a week before it’s repaired.” His face was slack. He hadn’t shaved since the day before and his face-scruff almost looked blue. “Fun’s over, boys.”

* * *

My Dad made pinto beans for breakfast.

Beans in bowls.

That’s it.

“Heartier than cereal,” he said.

“Hate,” O whispered.

It seemed like he was talking to the beans.

“Well, I ordered the roof online,” Dad said. “And while I was at it, I ordered a dog for Mrs. P.”

“That’s cool,” I said.

“I assessed the water damage from the storm last night and it seems the only building affected was the grocery store, so I’d say we’re in pretty good shape,” he said.

There was a homemade candle in the middle of the table, lime green, covered in dust.

I guess it had been there yesterday.

It had never been lit.

“I haven’t seen you doing much with the candles,” I said.

“Candles,” scoffed Dad. “How far can you go? I’m trying to figure out this miniature town thing. How to market it. Ideas?”

I shook my head.

O was staring at the window, at that same lemon rubbing itself there, with a blank and almost Zen expression.

“I also made a cross for the church this morning,” Dad said. “Want to see?”

We abandoned our beans and followed him down the basement stairs.

The cross was made out of toothpicks and Elmer-glued to the front of the church.

“Nice,” I said.

O was squinting at the house that was on the edge of the table.

“Where’d we go?” he asked.

“Oh!” Dad said.

He walked over, rubbing his hands together.

“Look at my boys, up there in the attic.”

We were up there in the attic, on a matchbox-sized bed.

“Who’s that, then?” O asked, pointing to the two figurines in the bed downstairs.

“That’s your mom and me,” Dad said.

Nothing moved in the room, except some dust in the air.

I heard once that most dust is dead skin.

Maybe those were pieces of my father floating in the air, actually, not dust, and when I breathed them in, I was breathing in a part of my father that was already dead.

“Dad,” O said.

He was using a soft voice he usually reserved for breaking news to someone.

As in, Mom, I broke the sliding glass window today.

As in, Mom, I got suspended again.

Mom, you’re not crazy, it was me who stole your Heinekens.

“Dad,” O said. “Mom’s actually kind of seeing someone.”

Dad’s thin grin straightened into a hard line.

“In real life, I mean,” O added. “His name’s Tad.”

“Oh,” Dad said. “OK. No biggie.”

We watched Dad.

I felt like he was a grenade and O had just pulled the pin.

“Not a biggie in the least.” Dad put his barely shaking fingers inside the miniature house and plucked one of the figurines out.

He threw it across the room.

“There, all better,” he said.

His five o’clock shadow had grown prickly and his hair fell forward, ungelled.

He smiled. “Now it’s just us again.”

* * *

O quieted that day. All he said to me the whole afternoon was, shut up. Blankfaced, slumpbodied. He lay on his back on the futon and stared up into the bug graveyard in the skylight. I sat next to him and asked if he was OK. He went upright. His eyes fixed on me, concrete, danceless. His arm jutted out into the air and his fist hit my jaw. I fell off the futon onto the wood floor. My years shrank away from me and I wanted to want to fight back, but mostly I just wanted to cry. I didn’t. I swallowed a hot rock of upset and got to my feet and went downstairs. That first betrayal, that brotherly punch, felt permanent. And it kind of was. Years later, after bruises, the money he stole, the girlfriends of mine he lied to, the many sorries he’d shell out like they were infinite, his AA meetings and my Al-Anons, I would always remember the crack of his knuckles on my chin that knocked me from my seat, and the feeling of it inside me, like a book closing.

* * *

I moved my gym bag downstairs and lay down on the couch.

It smelled sickening in there, melted cough drops in an old lady’s handbag.

Why the hell were there so many candles and why would my dad ignore them.

I drifted off, trying to think about anything but the hurt screaming on my jaw and elsewhere.

At some point, I sat up.

It was dark outside and in.

I smelled chimney smoke and the ill stink of melted plastic.

There was a square of light from the stairs leading to the basement.

In the light, there were silver swirls lapping.

I walked toward the smoke.

“Dad?” I said.

“Down here,” he said cheerfully.

I walked down the stairs, where the smoke got thicker.

A corner of his table was on fire, littered with the debris of black matches, and he was standing back observing with hands in pockets.

“There’s been a housefire,” he said.

I could see the innards of the little house burning, the beds curling to ash, the matchstick people writhing in flames.

“Jesus,” I said.

“I suspect arson,” Dad said.

“Dad, put it out, the whole place is going to burn.”

“It seems to be heading for town, doesn’t it?”

“Dad,” I said.

He just stood there, watching the fire like it was no biggie.

“Dad, the real house could set fire,” I said.

“Lighting up like a box of candles,” he said.

Plastic trees were smooshing themselves in the heat.

I walked upstairs and got a bowl of water.

I came back down to the basement and dumped the water on the teeny housefire.

The fire went out, water suffocating the black lumps of plastic and wood.

It left a hand-sized charcoal area, a burned hill.

“Fucking hell,” Dad said. “Now a flood.”

* * *

Mom got my message that night and came to pick us up the next morning. She waited outside with the engine running. The car was parked behind a tree so you couldn’t see her from the house, but she texted us when she was there. Dad’s beard was growing in and I remembered how he used to look in the alligator farm days, like some kind of blond wizard, shirtless in camouflaged pants. He hugged me goodbye. O shook his hand and muttered, “Thanks.”

Dad followed us out to the porch and put his hand up to block the sun so he could try to see Mom there, but like I said, you couldn’t see her from the house. “Come again soon,” he said. “Tell your mother and Tad I said hello. Tell them they’re welcome anytime.” A bee flew in his face and he batted it away. “Goddamn bee, leave me alone, why don’t you,” he yelled.

O didn’t call “shotgun” like he usually does. On the ride home, he sat in the back. Mom said Tad was doing just fine, thanks. She kept smiling and asking why O was pouting. He answered, “I’m half him.” She asked him to clarify that statement and he shut his eyes and balled up his sweatshirt like a pillow and pretended to sleep. Or maybe he was really sleeping, I don’t know. Mom turned up the oldies station. She put her hand on my knee. I asked if Dad was crazy and she said, “If he were crazy, things would be easier. Crazy they have pills for.” I thought about how my dad had hurled a miniature figurine representing my mother across the basement, how that figurine was lying somewhere in the dirt and the dryer lint, the sole survivor of the little housefire, the only member of our plastic family left, and probably nobody would ever even remember she was there.

My father died a year later. He was struck by a truck on the side of the highway during a night hike. By then, he had grown his beard long again and had given away all the candles. His entire basement, so I hear from my mom and Tad, who cleaned up Dad’s house without O and me, was tables covered in Astroturf and plastic trees and shrunken houses. There were horses, stables, farms on one table. On another, shiny skyscrapers and long highways packed with micro-cars. Streetlamps attached to automatic timers. Figurines in crowds and swarms, single-file lines in supermarkets. Some buildings, she said, were under construction. Some houses were wet, rotting, or scorched. There was a Godzilla figurine terrorizing a park in the city. Tad packed it all up carefully, in boxes, and took it home with them. He said maybe us bros would like to keep something that meant so much to the old man. Tad referred to any dad anywhere as “the old man.” O said he didn’t want any of the old man’s junk. So I took it.

And when I graduated high school and went off to Sac State, I brought the boxes with me. They filled my closet.

And when I married Caroline and moved into the ranch house, I made a place for them in the garage.

And the boxes, I never once opened them.




Faith Gardner’s Comments

I’ve been working on a series of stories where I use spam email subject headings as both titles and writing prompts. This is one of them. I started with the title, “Lucky Beneficiary,” and went from there.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 39 | Winter 2013