Family Plots (a story)

I no longer know when I wrote this story, although it was obviously written before I wrote digitally, because the typescript I recently came across, which I’ve revised here only slightly, clearly came from a typewriter. (I suspect that most or all of it was written in Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s, although I may have started it much earlier.) A few of the details are autobiographical in origin (e.g., I grew up with three brothers, but certainly without a nanny, and the description of the grandparents’ mansion mostly corresponds to my own grandparents’ home in Florence, Alabama, owned and occupied today by a local friend), but most of them obviously aren’t.

I’ve hesitated about publishing much of my fiction on this site because the responses to my stories so far have been fairly minimal — a likely result of “niche marketing” that tends to associate this site almost exclusively with film (or, to a lesser extent, jazz and reviews of prose fiction) — but I’ve decided to repost this with links on Facebook and Twitter just to see if this changes anything. — J.R.

Family Plots


The restaurant was so crowded that they had to assign all six of us to separate tables, with careful instructions to deliver five of the checks to Daddy-Pop after the meal, reconvene, and then go to see a Marx Brothers double feature down the street.

Unfortunately, there were also crowds at the movie theater, with the result that three of us got to see Love Happy while the other three waited in the lobby –- after which the groups changed places and the Love Happy trio loitered in the lobby while the other bunch got to spend A Night in Casablanca. On the way home –- three in the back seat, three in front -– we argued about which of the movies was worse. Then, thanks to a reshuffling of rooms back at the house, this being a special occasion, I wound up having to share a double-bed with Howard and Dorothy Ann, my older brother and sister-in-law; Frieda, our nanny, got a room of her own.

Only in cars and around the breakfast table were we ever six at a time, and whenever we went somewhere by car, Dorothy Ann, poor thing, had to take the bus.


Daddy-Pop wrote and directed a play for the local theater group, and I took a walk into town one night to take a look at it. The whole town had been talking about it. It was the last night of the run, and although I was expecting a small and discerning audience, I was hardly prepared to find Daddy-Pop as the only spectator in the auditorium. He was seated about twelve rows back from the stage, dead center, and not wanting to embarrass him, I quietly slipped into a seat about twelve rows behind, without a sound to betray my presence. After a bit, the lights dimmed and the curtain came up, but there were no actors on the brightly lit and sparsely furnished stage, and no voices to indicate the presence of any in the wings –- only a sound of collective heavy breathing. My father sat enrapt, and I quickly concluded that everything was as it should be. After ten minutes or so, Frieda and Dorothy Ann silently stole into the seats on either side of me while Mum and Howard entered the row behind us, each of them also coming from a separate aisle. It was as quiet as a church. “This is even better than it was last night,” I heard Howard whisper to   Mum. “You can tell by looking at Daddy-Pop. He isn’t at all distracted this time.” About three hours later, the curtain fell and we left him there in the dark, basking in his triumph.


Howard and Dorothy Ann had nothing to wear to the open house that Mum was planning that afternoon, so they agreed to pose nude in the garden like Greek statues, with a sword and harp as protective props, on either side of the long table where Frieda was in charge of serving drinks. Daddy-Pop and I were assigned the respective tasks of eats and entertainment, although we each shared our duties –-
Daddy-Pop serving my cheese-dip at a right angle to the drinks table while I performed his piece for solo clarinet inside the right angle. The only problem was that Mum, the sole guest, failed to show up due to a splitting headache and remained in her room. After an hour or so, to break the tedium, Dorothy Ann and Howard swapped harp and sword, Daddy-Pop and I exchanged cheese-dip and clarinet, and Frieda served drinks to all of us, just to pass the time.


Small children at meals and on trips were always a problem. My family had a system that was far from infallible, yet still strove for equitable treatment. At mealtimes, all three of the youngest boys were kept in the bathroom medicine cabinet, each with a separate shelf of his own (where he also slept every night) -– unless it happened to be his birthday, in which case he’d be taken out, brought into the dining room, and placed on the dead center of the table, where he’d be free to take as much food as he desired from anyone else’s plate. On car trips, the three youngest boys would be placed in separate spots under the hood, each one being assigned to check on the functioning of his special section and to report on any maintenance problems that might arise with the aid of a special buzzer.

On plane, train and bus trips, the boys were packed into separate bags and assigned comparable responsibilities regarding the contents of each suitcase. To make things even more equitable, Daddy-Pop rigged up a wireless intercom system between them so they could communicate to one another across the reaches of the luggage compartment. This device was unnecessary in the medicine cabinet and impractical under the hood (because of all the engine noise), but it made all the other trips delightful to the three boys, who loved to send code messages back and forth between their separate suitcases.


Frieda, who used to spend all day swallowing pennies herself when she was a tot, now distributes the ones that she has to the three boys in the medicine cabinet, each of whom swallows as many as she gives him. She never gives any of the boys the same number of pennies twice, and her argument to Mum and Daddy-Pop is that this is the best method of teaching math and accounting that she knows, because she always adheres to rigid system in distributing the pennies. Each recipient has to count out the number of pennies he has before swallowing any of them, and then can swallow an individual penny only after calling out the correct number in the series (#1, #2, #3, etc.) He then is required to remember (a) the number of pennies to swallow within each series and (b) the total number of pennies he has swallowed to date; and to avoid any mistakes in computation, Frieda keeps box scores listing each boy’s current total taped under the medicine cabinet and over the sink, at an angle where none of them can see it but she can. F the boys counts out an incorrect number, she eliminates or subtracts a penny from one of his present or future allotments. In such a fashion, they all spend their time resourcefully. To her mind, it’s simply a form of banking for herself, because she’s also the one in charge of their toilet training, and she always gets her pennies back in the end. It’s no wonder that thirty years later, Frieda will own part of Texas -– land of the Frieda, home of the brave.


Flaunt, the oldest boy, occupies the top shelf, which he shares with the amphetamines and the dental floss. Not surprisingly, he’s the most restless     brother — needs and gets much less sleep than either Scowl or Smolder, has a worse temper and a lot more extraneous energy. Whenever he’s feeling especially stir crazy, he unwinds just enough dental floss to allow him to climb down to either Scowl or Smolder’s shelf for an impromptu visit. With fretful Scowl -– who lives with the deodorant, Q-tips, mouthwash and aspirin –- he composes and rehearses obscene musical numbers and boasts about his imagined sexual exploits. With cheerful Smolder -– who curls up with the Band-Aids, vitamins, cotton and toothpaste –-     he plays games of tic-tac-toe and gin rummy, and usually wins.

Most of the musical numbers that he concocts with Scowl are parodies of famous songs, such as the following:

You say “clitoris,” I say “clitoris,”
You say “mouthwash,” I say “Lavoris,”
Clitoris,” “clitoris,” “mouthwash,” “Lavoris,”
Let’s call the whole thing off.

Sometimes with Smolder, when he’s feeling particularly enterprising about tic-      tac-toe, Flaunt will use Band-Aids as straight lines, vitamins as X’s, and gobs of toothpaste as O’s.


When Bruce George –- kid brother to Flaunt, Scowl and Smolder -– was born, there was no room left in the medicine cabinet, so he went to live with Poppy-Dad and Grand-Mum at their house, a Spanish stucco mansion with terraces, balconies, sun room, massive garden, wading pool, and bird-bath as well as three possible medicine cabinets to roost in and claim as his very own. Early evenings, when Grand-Mum ran his steamy baths in one of the three possible bathroom sinks (for he would often like to rotate his nests), he would sit on the lower shelf, a dry washcloth draped over his shoulders like a sultan’s cape, and sniff the rising vapor with relish before holding his nose, jumping free, and letting himself drop blissfully into the warm, still water below. His older brothers invariably felt envious whenever one would come over for a night and share a cabinet with Bruce George. The older brother would always take a higher shelf, and often would wake in the night hearing Bruce George giggle and even cuss in his sleep, warm and happy and indescribably tiny down there somewhere in the dark beneath him.


Death for all four had something to do with going down the drain. Frieda, Mum and Grand-Mum always made sure the sink was full of water and the stopper firmly in place when they went to sleep, but all of them had recurring nightmares about rolling off the shelf, pushing open the cabinet door in their sleep, and spilling out into an empty sink, falling towards and then down into the dead-center drain, deeper and deeper into God knows what. And then, after a pregnant pause, a torrent of water, usually cold, would shoot down on top of them as they fell, each one sinking further and further into his own separate drain, his own separate death, his own separate dream, awash in a flood. It felt almost as creepy as the times when Mum or Daddy-Pop or Poppy-Dad or Grand-Mum or Dorothy Ann or Frieda would be using the mirror on the other side of the medicine cabinet, the side they couldn’t see, and they would hear and feel one of their elders out there, looking in their direction but seeing only herself or himself. In a word, they hated medicine cabinets, feared sinks, and longed for mirrors themselves, especially those with nothing behind them. Spending an afternoon in Poppy-Dad and Grand-Mum’s wading pool was always preferable, whether it was with company or alone.


On our way home from Frieda’s ranch in Austin, we had an accident; Daddy-Pop drove smack into another car carrying five family members, the same model, make and color as our own. As Daddy-Pop explained it later, he was momentarily distracted by the similar-looking car. Back at home we had another car that looked quite different, and for a few seconds he irrationally assumed that he was in that different-looking car, alone, while Mum was in the other car with the rest of the family –- Howard, Dorothy Ann, Frieda and me -– headed in the opposite    direction. That’s when the cars collided.

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in either car, although both vehicles were effectively totaled. The other family proved to be both friendly and forgiving, however, as well as equally spontaneous; and before the afternoon was over, all ten of us had set off on foot to share a picnic, stocked with a profusion of items collectively bought at a nearby supermarket. After trekking single-file over a hilly pasture, we spread out Mum’s tablecloth –- a gift from Frieda, in partial repayment for all the pennies she’d once paid us and then recollected -– in the shade of a few oak trees, put down our knapsacks, and settled down to some serious eating and convivial drinking. By nightfall, we were all in one another’s arms; and the four boys, released from their respective knapsacks, eventually set about building a fire to keep us all warm. They did a beautiful job of it, too.

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